Even kings watch the news, it turns out. And so it is that one night in December 1970, Elvis Presley is alone in his man cave in Graceland … watching the news … on three TVs.
Elvis doesn't like what he sees on any of the broadcasts. The war in Vietnam. Protests in America. Communism. Racism. Drugs. It's all shook up all over the world, he realizes.
So he picks up a pistol and shoots his TVs.
Then he decides to do something about all that cruel news.
You see, Elvis has an epiphany of sorts: the notion that he could make a difference—a real difference—in the culture. Not by singing "Love Me Tender" or "Blue Suede Shoes" or by starring in his 32nd movie. No, something much more significant.
Elvis wants to become an undercover federal agent at large. And to do that, well, he's going to have to get a meeting with President Richard Nixon.
Which is exactly what he does on Dec. 21, 1970, posing for a picture along the way that's become the single most requested image in the U.S. National Archives.
As this dramedy gently caricatures its two titular icons (Nixon likes M&M's and Dr. Pepper; Elvis has an obsessive fondness for guns, among his other outsized personality quirks), it also does something rather remarkable: It shows two generation-shaping men struggling with their insecurities and their desires for significance.
Mostly we see this with Elvis. He's depicted as genuinely wanting to make a difference, to combat a rising counterculture he believes is ripping apart the fabric of the country he loves. Sure, he's got a rock idol's narcissistic misread on what he can truly accomplish as an undercover federal agent. But underneath the star-spangled self-obsession, we get glimpses of someone who's still deeply longing to find meaning, to fill the emptiness inside.
Despite Elvis' nearly unparalleled fame (only the Beatles, the film suggests, are as big … and Elvis detests them, especially that communist sympathizer John Lennon!), he longs to leave a legacy that's more substantive. He's also weary of being objectified. In perhaps the film's most poignant scene, he tells his best friend, Jerry Shilling, that his fans don't really view him as a real person. Instead, he's just a "thing" that reminds them of their first kiss, a breakup, etc. "I become an object," he says. "No different from a bottle of Coke." Then he adds that under the sunglasses and the makeup and the gold bling is a real person. "But they never see. They never see that boy from Memphis, Tennessee. … I don't even know if I know him anymore."
Clearly Elvis longs to have real relationships and be treated normally, something he hazily realizes is mostly impossible. It probably explains why he keeps sneaking away from his security detail and heading out into public unaccompanied (where women repeatedly go wild for him). But he's weary of all the mindless attention. And that explains the appeal of his desire to "go undercover."
As for Nixon, he has no initial interest in meeting with Elvis. He's only persuaded when the King's and the President's respective handlers realize that Nixon's 22-year-old daughter is a huge Elvis fan. In a revealing rant to an aide, Nixon complains about how beautiful people like Elvis have it made and don't have to work hard. Nixon, on the other hand, has never seen himself as attractive, a fact that has driven his bulldog-like personality his entire life. Nixon even asks an aide if he thinks he could take Elvis in a fight. Obviously, Nixon's shown to have deep insecurities, demons that we all know will later come back to haunt him.
Fast-forward to when the two actually meet: Nixon takes to Elvis' earnestness, and he's impressed with the now-tired singer's disgust for the counterculture, becoming convinced that Elvis is genuinely interested in the welfare of the country.
Orbiting around the periphery of this central focus is Elvis' relationship with former handler and faithful friend Jerry. Jerry's struggled to keep his life from being consumed by working with Elvis, and he has recently tried to cut professional—but not personal—ties. We see Jerry trying to define and defend his boundaries with Elvis, even as Elvis talks about how important Jerry is to him as one of his few true friends and confidants. Near the film's conclusion, Elvis tells Jerry that he'll buy him a house for helping him meet Nixon. Jerry responds, "You don't have to buy my friendship, E. I am your friend. I love you, E—not the 'thing,' not the presents."
Another poignant moment comes when Elvis ruminates about his twin dying at birth. It happened 35 minutes before Elvis was born, and he says that span of time must have been so hard for his mother, then suggests that his success is because God "felt guilty" for taking his brother and then decided to bestow upon Elvis "the luck for two people."
A female ticket agent at the airport says of Elvis' arrival, "I've prayed this day would come so many times!" We hear Mahalia Jackson singing the old spiritual "Peace in the Valley" (a song that Elvis also covered during his career). Elvis wears a "tree of life" necklace.
We glimpse Jerry's girlfriend, Charlotte, in bed in a clingy camisole. Jerry jokes that he's with her because of her "sweet, sweet a--." Another woman is similarly described as a great "piece of a--." One of Elvis' handlers uses his connection with the King to try to seduce a female hotel employee who says she'd do anything to meet the singer. (And it's not the first time he's done so.)
As mentioned, Elvis shoots several televisions with a pistol. He and his entourage are fond of carrying concealed weapons … firearms that they're asked to relinquish when they visit the White House. Elvis also gets in trouble at the airport when he tries to board a plane with concealed weapons on him.
Crude or Profane Language
About 10 f-words and four or five s-words. "H---," "d--n" and "a--" are used a handful of times each, "p---ed" at least once. God's name is taken in vain seven or eight times (most often with "d--n"); Jesus name is abused three or four times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Elvis and others smoke quite a lot. But despite what we know about the real-life Elvis' addictions, they're not depicted here, and he rails against drug use. "It's messing with kids' minds," he says in a letter he writes to the president. And he earnestly tells another government official, "I believe the drug culture is ruining our youth." A presidential briefing includes stats on how many adults and teens have died in narcotics-related incidents.
Other Negative Elements
Elvis carries on a conversation with a guy who's urinating.
This story of two generational icons is a curious creation that accomplishes some pretty curious things. In quirky, comedic, full-on indie style, it wryly lampoons and exaggerates both of its main characters' famously narcissistic traits. But it's not outright uncharitable to either of them. Instead, Elvis & Nixon shows us how these two radically different, radically influential men ironically shared more common ground than anyone might have guessed—including them. They were men who longed to be accepted, to make a difference, to save the world as they knew it.
Both, of course, came to tragic ends—one permanent, the other political. But before that happens, Elvis & Nixon wants to grant us an engaging peek behind the curtain. A fictionalized, occasionally obscene peek behind the curtain.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley; Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon; Alex Pettyfer as Jerry Schilling; Johnny Knoxville as Sonny; Colin Hanks as Egil 'Bud' Krogh; Evan Peters as Dwight Chapin; Sky Ferreira as Charlotte; Tracy Letts as John Finlator; Tate Donovan as H.R. Haldeman
Liza Johnson ( )
April 22, 2016
July 19, 2016