Tropic Sprockets / Elvis & Nixon

By Ian Brockway

In December 1970, it is said that Elvis Presley had time on his hands. He had a eureka moment: why not have an undercover agent badge? Such an object would be the ultimate in power. According to several witnesses, the singer wanted the rare badge for his collection, though he may have wanted it to gain access to drugs. The film “Elvis & Nixon” is the story of Elvis’ quest for this object, as powerful to him as the Holy Grail.

Elvis (Michael Shannon) boards a plane on a whim bound for L.A. He takes a pen and scrawls a letter to President Nixon. He then gets an idea to visit the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Presley meets Deputy Director John Finlator (well played by playwright Tracy Letts.) Finlator thanks Elvis for his anti-drug views but tells the icon that he can not approve the acquisition of the badge.

Word travels to Nixon (Kevin Spacey ) who is flabbergasted by Elvis’ intentions. Such a wish is absurd. Elvis’ people ask for the King to see the president. Nixon dismisses the notion with a wave.

Both Shannon and Spacey clearly relish their roles with gusto. Shannon looks like Dracula in Vegas in high collar and coat, while Spacey is a nervous and hunched, a reptillian creature with equal parts shyness and shock. While there is a certain amount of camp here, the events are not played for laughs. Elvis truly intends to ferret out communists worldwide and to root out those subversive hippies who give America a bad name.

There is poignance here, too. Each person wants what the other possesses. Elvis wants power and influence, Nixon wants to be cool and handsome. In short, he wants to be liked. Despite these differences, the two are the same: both are driven by ambition and are nearing the end of their careers. Elvis says that he is “a mere product like a bottle of Coke,” while Nixon laments, “I am not good looking like Elvis.”

In what might have proven sundry and  pedestrian in other hands, (after all, the story was made into a previous film in 1997) Director Liza Johnson shows just the right tone precisely because she gives the two great actors Shannon and Spacey room to explore and have fun with their respective parts.

Granted, “Elvis and Nixon” is on the light side of history, yet it is stirringly vivid, chuckling and lively. Better still and precisely because of its actors, the film delivers a fun haunt that all of us can surely believe.

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