tribeca 2016: elvis & nixon.
From its very first moments, Elvis & Nixon sets a quiet, sweet-sad tone that at once embraces and deconstructs the titanic status that its titular characters retain in popular culture. We see Elvis in the periphery of the frame, holed away in a room in his Graceland estate and watching multiple TVs. It's a lonely, quiet image. That is, right up until Elvis pulls out a gun and shoots one of the TV sets.
Admittedly, the film's bearings are shaky. The movie is exactly what it says on the tin, i.e. it presents a fabulized account of the events leading up to and surrounding the picture of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon's meeting in December of 1970. A photograph, even if it is the most requested picture in the National Archives, doesn't seem like enough to carry a movie, and it very nearly isn't. Its saving grace — and the biggest reason to seek out the film — comes in the form of its star, Michael Shannon.
I can't think of a better screen Elvis other than Elvis himself. Yes, there are some laughable moments — he performs martial arts for the President, for instance — but none of them are played, at least not by Shannon if not necessarily by the movie, for straight laughs. The ridiculous, larger-than-life aspects to Elvis are tempered by the knowledge that it's behavior born from having lived so long in his own world that it doesn't seem ridiculous to him at all. That, or it's an act put on for the benefit of others so as to give them what they expect Elvis to be. The divide is subtler than finger snaps and karate chops. As "Elvis," he sends girls into titters, a rock-and-roller in gold and black. He's magnetic. As Elvis, the boy from Memphis, he still commands attention, but he is suddenly no longer the unknowable, untouchable, alien celebrity that his behavior might otherwise suggest.
By focusing on a single event instead of trying to hammer a life into a family-friendly narrative, the movie manages to avoid the usual pitfalls that have plagued recent biopics, but the thinness of the concept is inescapable. It's a weakness that's emphasized by how little weight the secondary characters carry. While Kevin Spacey makes a fine sparring partner as Richard Nixon, the movie is unquestionably Michael Shannon's, and Alex Pettyfer and Colin Hanks are plot accessories rather than inherently necessary nor interesting characters. To wit, the best scene in the movie is between Elvis and a mirror.
It's also strange to watch a movie about Elvis that doesn't feature any of his music at all, especially as the narrative conjures phantoms of his songs throughout. Elvis sings just once in the film, warbling along to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Susie Q" as he and Jerry Schilling drive a trio of stewardesses home, and he even mentions to Jerry that whenever people see him, they think not of the person Elvis Presley but of a first kiss set to one of his songs, or similar such memories. The audience is no exception to the rule. But maybe that's the point. The movie gives us flashes of Elvis the star, but it's more interested, albeit ultimately in a low-stakes way, in Elvis the man. It's striking when, early on in the film, Elvis shows up to the airport alone. While he banks on "Elvis" to charm the airport attendant into getting him where he needs to go — while carrying firearms, no less — Elvis doesn't have any friends or family traveling with him. He doesn't even have any bags.