Tribeca 2016: ‘Elvis and Nixon’ Shames the Figures it Depicts

Tony Schwab
"Elvis & Nixon" is a film starring Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley and Kevin Spacey as President Nixon.

“Elvis and Nixon,” the new production from Amazon Studios, serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when the barriers between film and television are blurred. Clearly operating on the budget of a TV episode, this film is unable to give production design with any real sense of the time period. At feature length, it feels more like an HBO pilot than a film.

The film, directed by Liza Johnson, tells the true story of the famous 1970 meeting between the great rock and roller (Michael Shannon) and the controversial 37th president of the United States (Kevin Spacey). At the time, Elvis was at an aimless point in his life and is shown watching three TVs at once in his gigantic Graceland home. Living in isolated fashion, he became afraid of the social decline many felt was occurring at the time in the U.S., leading him to seek a meeting with Nixon, who was elected after promising to fight these changes.

The movie treats the meeting and the negotiations leading up to it with a very light sense of comedy. A tremendous amount of time is devoted to scenes in which people fall over themselves, overwhelmed by The King’s presence. Elvis’ obsession with the culture of the early ‘70s is always treated as a quirk, never as a manifestation of the deep insecurities which we know plagued him. His own drug use goes unmentioned.

The dialogue is in the style of a sitcom, especially when dealing with the men who work for Presley and Nixon. They have the same amused mix of love and annoyance with their bosses that the characters on “Parks and Recreation” do.

It is a shame to see a talented cast this out of place. Shannon and Spacey look nothing like Elvis and Nixon. With figures this monumental, this disparity between the characters and the actors who play them cannot be excused as an artistic choice. The cast are forced to wear awful, bargain basement hairpieces. Shannon gives several pretentious, overwritten speeches about how isolating it is to be as famous as him. He does well enough, but he can’t save the diatribes from their lowliness.

Spacey is given less time but does a good job as Nixon. His performance reminds one how talented he is at vocal impersonations. He plays the president as a man with a giant chip on his shoulder, bitter about everything from Vietnam War protestors to his early failures with women.

The funniest joke comes at the end, when title cards list the fates of all of the people involved. Nixon and his henchman were all, of course, disgraced by Watergate. We are reminded that the pettiness he shows in the film was his ultimate downfall, and, for a moment, the movie is able to be more than silly.

“Elvis and Nixon” premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and is currently showing in area theaters.

Email Tony Schwab at [email protected]

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