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'Elvis & Nixon' is a comic look at famed 1970 meeting

Now here is a preposterous movie idea for you.

One night in December 1970, rock ’n’ roll superstar Elvis Presley sits alone in his Graceland mansion, watching three TV sets. Angered by images of hippies burning a draft card and protesting against the U.S. government, he grabs a revolver and blasts away at one of the TV screens.

A couple of days later, Elvis shows up at the White House, offering his services to the government as an undercover “federal agent at large.” Elvis asks for a meeting with President Richard M. Nixon, so he can tell Nixon of his plans to infiltrate “anti-American” groups such as the Black Panthers, hippie communes, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Elvis gets his meeting with the nation’s 37th president, gets sworn in as a “federal agent at large” and gets a government badge to show all his buddies.

It all sounds very silly and off-the-wall, no doubt, but it really did happen. More or less.

Over the decades, millions of Americans have laughed at the bizarre and iconic pictures taken of Elvis’ strange visit to the Nixon White House. Now, thanks to director Liza Johnson’s playful film, they can find out a few things about how the famous photos came about.

They can also have a good time watching two amazing actors – the brilliant Kevin Spacey’s hilarious portrayal of Nixon, and Michael Shannon’s sad and funny performance as Elvis.

It’s a very funny little film, rarely belly-laugh funny, but one that will keep you smiling all the way through and for quite awhile afterward. I’d highly recommend it for anyone who lived through the 1970s, or anyone who is fascinated by Elvis, Nixon or the Watergate era.

The screenplay by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes takes us behind the scenes of two very interesting worlds – the button-down, paranoid, pre-Watergate Nixon White House, and the whacked-out world of one of the most worshipped entertainers in the history of the world.

When Nixon’s aides first approach him with the idea of meeting with Elvis, the president barks, “Who the [very rough expletive] set this up?” He expresses outrage that the meeting was planned “during MY nap time!” and refuses to meet with the rocker.

Later, Nixon changes his mind after daughter Julie calls him, demanding to know how he could possibly turn down a meeting with her favorite singer. It doesn’t hurt when his assistants tell him Elvis is very popular with voters, too.

Elvis’ world is a bit more complicated. Everywhere he goes – an airport, a diner, and even the White House – people go crazy trying to please him and attract his attention. At times, Elvis clearly enjoys it and he knows how to use fame to his advantage.

At other times, the pasty-faced Elvis looks like a man on the verge of a breakdown, deeply disappointed by fame. There are several poignant scenes of a fragile Elvis talking about it with one of his few real friends, an earnest assistant named Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer).

To some people, Shannon will seem like a strange choice to play Elvis. Perhaps best known for his role as Nelson Van Alden, the obsessive federal agent on the “Empire Boardwalk” TV show, Shannon has some very funny moments as Elvis. But he’s nothing like those happy-go-lucky Elvis impersonators we’re used to seeing.

Spacey, on the other hand, is just flat-out hilarious, especially during his fabled meeting with Elvis. After initially telling his staff he will give Elvis no more than five minutes, Nixon finds he, too, is captivated by the rock singer, a man who is even more famous than the president of the world’s most powerful nation. It doesn’t even bother him that Elvis shows up carrying several handguns and wearing an outrageous gold belt with a buckle roughly the size of Rhode Island.

The looks on Spacey’s face when Elvis demonstrates some karate moves for him and then gives the president a huge, unexpected bear hug are moments of comic genius.

The brief relationship between the two men is summed up by a scene where Nixon shows Elvis a moon rock that has been given to him by the astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Go ahead, you can touch the moon rock, the president tells Elvis. “No, that’s cool, man,” Elvis responds. “Buzz sent me one, too.”

MOVIE REVIEW

“Elvis & Nixon”

3 stars (out of four)

Starring: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer

Director: Liza Johnson

Running time: 86 minutes

Rating: R for some rough language.

The Lowdown: In December 1970, rock ’n’ roll icon Elvis Presley travels to the White House to request a meeting with President Richard Nixon.

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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