Elvis and Nixon, two indelible personalities from the last century met once, and a picture was taken. This much is true. The photograph is, apparently, the most requested photograph in the United States’ National Archives, though I had never seen it myself. That doesn’t mean it’s not well-known; it just means I didn’t know of it until I saw a trailer for this movie, Elvis & Nixon, based on the taking of that photograph. Nixon made Elvis an honorary DEA agent.
It is beside the point how much of the rest of this movie is true (very little, I imagine). The point of this movie is that the truth of these iconic personalities—why they did what they did, what they believed, how they felt about their lives—is a thing known only to a few people if to anyone, including themselves. The personas they created and sold and/or got elected obscure the real people beneath the gold chains and flag pins. Now that both men are dead, the personas are all we have left. It’s all we ever had, really.
Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey do fine impersonations of Elvis and Nixon, respectively, though the thought of the inverse is enough to make one giddy. Shannon and Spacey adopt the popular personas that these men gave us, so that they can, in small moments, drop the personas and give us brief glimpses of the imagined real men beneath the gloss. Shannon is, for a moment alone outside the Oval Office, a nervous Mississippi boy about to meet the President of the United States of America; Spacey is, fleetingly on the other side of the door, the little, poor Quaker kid from Whittier still eager to live up to his legendary King of England name. These moments make the whole movie worth it and elevate it from being merely a fun distraction to being something more touching and resonant for the world we live in today.
Make no mistake, it is fun to watch Elvis wield his celebrity to get what he wants and to watch people be so excited to meet him. Elvis & Nixon is a funny movie. At this stage in his career, the celebrity had overtaken the man, and he could get away with anything simply by virtue of being Elvis. Nixon too had reached the apex of his career and, hungry for reelection, was willing to stoop to extreme measures to prolong his reign. His advisors’ eagerness to arrange the photo-op with “The King” is a kind of opportunistic precursor to the Watergate break-in and other measures they took to keep Nixon in office. Elvis & Nixon is the farce that precedes the tragedy.
The story’s contemporary resonances with the way we all massage a public and private persona in this social media age are where the movie’s heart is though. None of us will ever be as famous as Elvis or Nixon—though if any of you reading this are that famous, let me know, because I know some good work that needs funding—but it doesn’t take that much fame to tempt the human heart to abandoning all else in pursuit of more. A subplot in this movie follows Elvis’ friend and one-time manager Jerry Schilling, who is faced with either staying part of Elvis’ entourage or leaving it to pursue a family life in California. His arc is a nice counterpoint to Elvis and Nixon’s, which are foregone conclusions at this point in their lives.
No, there is no notoriety in the quiet, simple, faithful life. No one requests photographs of ordinary women and men from the U.S. National Archives, not that they typically get to meet Presidents anyway. However, we are not called to fame but to faithfulness. The promise of popularity is ever before us, but perhaps in eschewing the whole world, we get to keep our souls. How strange is it that this is a thing we need to think about? But it certainly is a temptation particular to our age. Elvis and Nixon – showmen, clowns, icons, celebrities, and cautionary tales about what happens when we let images of ourselves become idols for others and for us to worship.