It’s one of the more bizarre incidents in U.S. history, an early intersection of pop and political culture that produced the most requested photograph in the National Archives and now, a motion picture starring Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey.
It’s “Elvis & Nixon,” and it’s a fictional account of the real-life, Dec. 21, 1970 meeting of Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office, when the King of Rock ‘n Roll offered his services as an undercover federal agent to crack down on subversives in the counter-culture.
“Those are the steel claws of a tiger, Mr. President,” Elvis, played by Shannon, tells Spacey’s Nixon after encouraging the 37th leader of the free world to slap his knuckles repeatedly. The movie opens Friday at some local theaters.
That impromptu game of Bloody Knuckles may or may not have happened, but for director Liza Johnson, filling in the blanks of the meeting, aided by real-life confidantes of Elvis (Jerry Schilling, played in the movie by Alex Pettyfer) and Nixon (Egil “Bud” Krogh, played by Colin Hanks) was a way to get at larger truths.
“We all went into this thinking that nobody really wants to see a big takedown of Elvis. And nobody needs to see a big takedown of Nixon, because we’ve seen it, you know? I think that some of the interest is in actually the things that are new or not at least the normal way that we see these characters,” she added.
Johnson and the screenwriters play to comic effect the chasm between entertainment and politics then. At first, Nixon has no interest in meeting Presley. But the King’s appeal to white Southerners, and his own daughters, wins out.
“He doesn’t understand why he should meet a celebrity. And I actually find that kind of charming, right? That’s he’s just so serious about the project of governing that he doesn’t really want to take a minute to be distracted by some counter-culture rock star,” she said. Contrast that with 2016, she said, when Donald Trump, “a reality TV star, is running for president.”
The facts still sound far-fetched. Presley walked up to the White House gates and asked the guards to deliver a hand-written letter offering his services. After a couple of days, Nixon agreed. Presley even presented Nixon with a commemorative .45 caliber pistol, to this day still in the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif. Nixon’s administration made sure Elvis got a “federal agent at large” badge.
The movie jauntily animates the interior lives of the two men, who find they have more in common than it might seem. Shannon and Spacey bring their roles to life as they veer away from impersonation and toward inhabiting the impossibly famous pair. There is no transcript of the meeting, but the picture of the two exists, famously, on refrigerator magnets everywhere.
And now the movie takes its place among the best kind of historical fiction, which entertains, amuses and makes one think.