Amazon Studios/Bleeker Street
December 21, 1970
I first became familiar with the story behind Elvis Presley’s incredible visit to the White House on December 21, 1970 many years ago, after reading the book, “Elvis: The Final Years” by author Jerry Hopkins. The book essentially opens in 1970 with Elvis having a heated argument with his father Vernon over his extravagant spending habits. Elvis impulsively throws a ceramic plate against the wall and leaves his Graceland mansion in a fit of rage, driving to Memphis International Airport in broad daylight. Once there, he buys a plane ticket to Washington, D.C. and checks into a hotel. Ultimately, he is joined by associate Jerry Schilling where he creates and implements a plan to meet then U.S. President Richard Nixon in-person. His goal in that meeting is to request a badge designating him an undercover Federal Narcotics Agent.
Now comes actors Kevin Spacey in the role of Nixon, and Michael Shannon as Elvis in the motion picture, "Elvis & Nixon". This film is not a biopic, selectively focusing only on one of the most unusual meetings one can imagine between the most powerful figure in the free world, and the most powerful entertainer in show business.
Both rose from poverty and became iconic figures. Both men were genuinely concerned about the direction of the United States during the Vietnam War and yes, both were flawed personalities. However, what emerges as so engaging about this film is how the proverbial walls that would otherwise deter such a meeting are broken down! Presley locked onto a focus that temporarily let him escape the enormous loneliness of his fame with a goal far removed from his family, his mansion, his fans and allowed him to briefly examine the man behind the myth of “The King”.
To this end, the film does not delve deeply into Presley's psyche. Instead, the viewer is taken along on an adventure I’m certain that Elvis could have never imagined in the heat of the argument with his father. In all, 28 photos were taken of Presley’s visit with President Nixon at the White House – 6 of them featuring bodyguard Sonny West (played by Johnny Knoxville) and assistant Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer).
The letter Presley scrawled on American Airlines’ stationary to President Nixon in flight is also available for viewing online at the National Archives. The movie is light fare, but perhaps “just what the doctor ordered” – to coin a phrase – in what has become a cycle of negative news this year. Credit must be given to Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon. Both President Nixon and Elvis Presley have been depicted in other motion pictures (by Anthony Hopkins and Kurt Russell, respectively). It’s hard to imagine two more difficult personalities to capture on film, even after bio pics succeeded in recent years with actors who did capture the essence of such notable public personalities as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Nelson Mandela. “Elvis & Nixon” is a temporary escape from too much reality, and it’s also a lot of fun!