Quirky drama, "Elvis & Nixon," imagines a surreal footnote to history
NEW YORK >> At around 6:30 a.m. on December 21, 1970, Elvis Presley delivered a hand-written note to a guard at the northwest gate of the White House requesting a meeting with President Richard Nixon. In the note scribbled on American Airlines stationery, Presley expressed concern for the state of the country and asked if he could help by becoming a Federal Agent at Large.
By 12:30 p.m., he was in the Oval Office, telling Nixon about his Tennessee youth, how the Beatles were anti-American and his decade long study of Communist brainwashing and drug culture.
It's one of the more surreal moments in modern American history, probably best known for the photos of the two that came out of the meeting. While there are firsthand accounts of how it all transpired and what was said, a new film "Elvis & Nixon," out today [at Images Cinema in Williamstown], imagines what happened on that strange day in between the margins. (See review, D3)
Directed by Liza Johnson, the film stars Michael Shannon as Presley and Kevin Spacey as Nixon. It largely takes place over the course of that day, as members of Presley's and Nixon's teams both try to make the gathering happen despite some trepidation from the White House.
In Deputy Assistant Dwight Chapin's memo to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman proposing the meeting, Haldeman even scrawled in the margin: "You must be kidding."
The details were important to Johnson in bringing this world to life.
The suit that Shannon wears is cut from the same pattern as Presley's was, and the car that his aid Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) drives is the same model Cadillac El Dorado, right down to the red leather interior. Beyond the set dressing, there were a number of too good to be true moments, like how Presley really did bring a commemorative Colt .45 as a present for the president.
But the script takes artistic license, too. According to the archives, photos were taken at the start of the meeting, for example. In the film, however, it's played for drama and almost doesn't happen.
"I wanted to be caught up in the facts in different ways than if I were making a documentary or a docudrama," she said.
For Johnson and her actors, the fun was getting to the emotional truth of the encounter, rather than a beat by beat, court-transcript style reenactment. This freedom leads to some very funny moments as this superstar rocker and this buttoned up politician navigate their time together. Without spoiling too much, one power move involves some M&M's.
"The script is very playful at imagining these things that can't be archived. Did either of them feel an impulse of competition? There's no archive of that. Did either of them feel flattered or like they wanted to flatter the other? There's no archive of that. Did he feel like he wanted to do a show for him? We don't know," Johnson said. "The story tries to take those characters seriously and really think about what they both actually wanted out of the situation, but also acknowledge the kind of energy that comes from the absurdity of them being together."
It even culminates in a big hug — Elvis initiated, Nixon accepted and all fantastically true.
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