Never in a million years would I have expected that a chance encounter between then-President Richard Nixon and music superstar Elvis Presley would continue to be so popular, forty years after the meeting took place. The official photo of the two shaking hands remains the most requested photograph in the National Archives, and now, in perhaps just as surreal an experience, a feature film has been made, ‘chronicling' the meeting between "Tricky Dick" and "The King."
Joey and Hanala Sagal co-wrote the script along with Cary Elwes. Yes, THAT Cary Elwes. Liza Johnson (Return) directs and shows us the events leading up to, and including the meeting. Elvis (Michael Shannon, 99 Homes) is watching the news and becomes despondent over the news from 1970. He wants to become a Federal Agent and do some good for the country, writing to Nixon (Kevin Spacey, 21), who scoffs at the idea initially. But he eventually warms to the idea, and through backchannels on both sides, the Memphis Mafia comprised of Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer, Beastly) and Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville, Jackass), and Nixon's staff, specifically .Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks, Vacation) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect). We see the maneuvering and machinations that lead to this strange event.
The obvious question to ask is, does Spacey, and more importantly Shannon, play the characters as the caricatures we've grown accustomed to? Does Spacey mumble and have the jowls, does Shannon present a full blown slurring redneck that throws karate at people at the drop of the hat? To answer the latter first, he DOES get to shoot a TV out, so…kinda? But in all seriousness, Shannon's Elvis does have some of the Elvis quirks that the public knows. The karate, the TV shooting, the big audacious jewelry, but he plays Elvis as a quiet, lonely guy, one who seems to have comfort in privacy because of how big his presence is. During one scene he discusses what it's like to be adored by so many, and that speech is one that could be recited by a lot of entertainers today. Shannon's Elvis is quiet and restrained, but still has enough "Elvis" in it to remind you of who he's playing.
Spacey tends to match Shannon stride for stride for the most part. His Nixon is a guy who is a politician first and doesn't take the meeting with Presley until some careful lobbying by his daughter. We don't see Spacey for most of the first half of the film until the meeting, but as the meeting goes on, Nixon warms to Elvis, I think in part because the two seem to have a shared isolation that they have comfort in. The difference is that Elvis has trust in his entourage, more Jerry than Sonny (and Pettyfer's performance is a modest surprise), whereas Nixon's staff may be more sycophantic, anything to get their boss re-elected. Hanks' performance is not bad, Peters marginally less so, and the film isn't without a casting surprise or two in the roles of Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman and Justice Department Narcotics Official John Finlator.
The chance for a film or those crafting it to be familiar in its skin know what its limitations may be seems to be something that doesn't come often too much these days. In Elvis & Nixon, Johnson and the actors know that there isn't much to work with, so they have some fun with the event and thus have a pleasant story that doesn't overstay its welcome. Like the meeting it portrays, it starts out structured, but as it goes along you don't want it to end. When it does, you don't feel bad, you may even enjoy yourself.The Blu-ray Disc:
Sony rolls Elvis & Nixon out with a 2.40:1 widescreen transfer that is excellent. Image detail in the jewels or in Elvis' watch or sunglasses can be picked out on occasion, as can be textures on wood and metals, like the engraving in a gun Elvis gave Nixon as a gift. The black of his hair and his suit is consistent through the film, and when the film does get a moment or two of color to show off, it looks vivid, like the Dr. Pepper logo on a bottle in the Oval Office. The film borrows stock footage in parts to help convey the period and that looks natural and straight from film. The image is devoid of haloing or other distracting post-image enhancement and looks razor sharp.The Sound:
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless track sounds good for the most part of the film. Sometimes there tends to be a moment or two of dropping out when Shannon talks, and as he approaches Elvis in soft-spoken tones this is a little frustrating, but can be forgiven. The film does borrow a song or two, and Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" sounds clean and as well-balanced as can be. There are moments of directional effects and channel panning though they are also not completely consistent. Given the source material, it was not that much of a shock. All in all, Sony does right by Elvis & Nixon on Blu-ray.Extras:
Johnson and Schilling join up for a commentary on the film that is fascinating, but for very little related to the film itself. Schilling recounts helping Shannon prepare for Elvis and recounts some real-life stories. The letter Elvis wrote to Nixon was the last handwritten letter he wrote (writing only four in his life), and talks about some of the real-life details of the event. He also discusses his life as a movie editor and working with Hal Ashby. He does share his thoughts on the cast and speculates on Elvis' motivations. Johnson is more into that vein on the commentary, but elaborates on a weird cast night out at the bar that included a former Nixon staffer doing scenes from Princess Bride, and Knoxville, Pettyfer and some tequila. It is a really nice track to listen to. The only other thing (save for Sony previews) is "Crazy But True," (3:29), where the cast discuss their thoughts on the film.Final Thoughts:
Elvis & Nixon looks at a strange event in the latter half of the twentieth century and tries to put some context and motivation behind it. With the performances of Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey I think they succeed, while injecting a bit of depth into these larger than life (for different reasons) figures. Technically, the disc is quite nice, and the commentary is one of the better ones I've experienced lately. I would check this out for the work the stars do in it.