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‘Elvis & Nixon’ speculates on a very odd moment in history

Elvis and Nixon 2016
I’ll mention this tidbit again before the week is out, but a lot of things debuting currently at the Tribeca Film Festival are also just hitting theaters this weekend as well. One such movie is Elvis & Nixon, which I’ve seen and enjoyed for the most part. I don’t especially think it’s an awards player, but as speculative entertainment and a festival entry, it certainly does the trick, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. Mostly, it’s an effectively comedic star vehicle for Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey, as well as a mild satire. It won’t blow you away, but it likely will make you giggle a fair amount.

The film is a look at what led up to the most requested photograph in the National Archives, which is an image of President Richard Nixon (Spacey) shaking hands with Elvis Presley (Shannon) in the Oval Office. Blending fact and fiction, we follow along as Elvis decides he needs an audience with Nixon in order to become deputized as a federal agent. He heads from Nashville, first to Los Angeles to recruit friend/associate/pseudo manager Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), and then to Washington DC to attempt to crash the White House. Initially, Nixon refuses, but staff members Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) eventually talk him into it. The rest, essentially, is history. Liza Johnson directs a screenplay from Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes (yes, the actor). Supporting players here include Johnny Knoxville, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts, Tate Donovan, and Ashley Benson, among others.

What makes Elvis & Nixon work is how light yet enjoyable a tone it takes with a concept that should probably come off as too ridiculous to work, even if it’s true. Shannon and Spacey are clearly having fun, and it rubs off on the audience. When not focused on either one of them, the film lags, but when they’re on the screen, and especially in their climatic meeting, sparks do tend to fly. The movie is far from perfect, but it’s so odd that it just plain winds up working. It’s a lighthearted satire that leaves you with a smile on your face, and that’s something.

It was interesting for me to compare Spacey’s real life interpretation of a President here to his fictional one on Netflix’s House of Cards. Whereas in the latter project he’s almost Shakespearian in his darkness, here he basically puts forward a cartoonish version of Tricky Dick. He doesn’t exactly make Nixon likable, but he’s hardly as dastardly as Frank Underwood is depicted to be. It’s fun to see Spacey do two sides of the same coin, and it’s clear as day that he’s enjoying it as well. I’d even argue that he’s a bit under used here, as Shannon’s Elvis is more the star of the flick than Spacey’s Nixon.

When you get right down to it, when Elvis & Nixon opens on Friday, it’ll be something very different for audiences to take a look at. It’ll represent one of a few Tribeca titles (along with things like Holidays, A Hologram for the King, and The Meddler, some of which I’ll be writing about in the days to come) going straight from the festival to screens, which is kind of cool. The film won’t be remembered come awards season, but it’s a fun little diversion from the blockbusters to come. I had a good time with the movie, and I suspect those of you who see it will have a similarly enjoyable time. Give it a shot and see what you think…

Be sure to check out Elvis & Nixon, beginning its theatrical run this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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