Liberty at the Movies Elvis and Nixon

Looking for a way to commemorate the January birthdays of former President Richard Nixon and "the King of Rock-n-Roll" Elvis Presley? Then check out Elvis and Nixon, available for download on Amazon.com (and free with an Amazon Prime membership).

This film tells the "untold" story behind the most requested photo in the history of the National Archives -- the picture of President Nixon and Elvis in the Oval Office. Most of the film centers on Elvis's quest to meet Nixon in order to obtain a badge certifying that he is an official undercover agent of the federal government.

Elvis, played by Michael Shannon, is concerned over the influence that groups like The Beatles were having over America's youth. He blamed the Beatles and other "hippie" groups rise of the "counter-culture" with its "relaxed" attitude towards sex and drugs, and the somewhat interconnected phenomenon of the new left, which opposed the draft and the war in Vietnam.

Elvis's objections are somewhat ironic, given that many viewed him as a threat to the social order when he first came on the national scene in the 1950s--and that Elvis was a huge influence on The Beatles.

The majority of the film focuses on Elvis's attempts to get a meeting with Nixon, including his run-in with airline security over his smuggling of guns on board an airplane. Luckily for the King, there was no TSA in 1970.

The film plays Elvis's various attempts to cut trough DC's red tape and get his badge for laughs. We see the shocked reaction of government officials as Elvis hand-delvers a letter to the White House, and walks in unannounced to the Office of Narcotics Control to request a meeting with the agency's director.

The various government officials Elvis encourages are clearly star-struck and go out of the their way to bend the rules -- except for Richard Nixon who only agrees to meet with Elvis after much cajoling and a dirty trick pulled on him by his two aides, Dwight Chapman and Erol Kough. Chapman and Kough's penchant for dirty tricks would eventually cause them to be sentenced to federal prison because of their involvement in Watergate.

Chapman and Kough see the advantage in associating Nixon with one of the country's (and the world's) most popular celebrities. Nixon does not see the value, this might be because  this was a time before it was common for celebrities to seek out the company of politicians or speak out on public issues.

Way back then, celebrities did not even give political speeches at award shows!

While a celebrity trying to hand delver a letter to the President at the gate of the White House or barging into a federal office would still raise an eyebrow (much less asking to be certified as an federal uncover agent), it is no longer uncommon see celebrities coming in and out of the White House and even testifying on Capitol Hill.

Eventually Elvis and Nixon get their meeting, where, much to Nixon's surprise, they discover they have a lot in common. For example, both came from poor backgrounds and both view the media as a pack of lying jackals. They also share a concern about communist influences on the youth culture. They both share a distaste for The Beatles.

There is a fair degree of irony in this conversation, as the anti-drug Elvis would develop an addiction to a variety of prescription medicines while the "law-and-order" President Nixon would end up resigning because of his role in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in, and other "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Chapman and Kough also bound with Jerry Schelming, a friend and former aid to Elvis who went with him to DC. Schelming is desperate to get back to his home in LA where he is supposed to have dinner with his girlfriend's parents and asks for her dad's blessing to marry her. Schelming and Nixon's aides find that working for a celebrity has a lot of similarities to working for a politician. Both take a toll on your personal life.

Michael Shannon got some criticism for not looking like Elvis, but I thought he did a great job portraying an older, jaded, Elvis. Colin Hanks and Even Peters also did a great job as the put-upon aides Kough and Chapman. But for me, the highlight of this film is Kevin Spacey's portrayal of Richard Nixon. Spacey gives us the "classic' Nixon: gruff, cynical, and full of resentment, but with a sharp and biting sense of humor (although he does not do as good a job as portraying Nixon's intelligence or humor as Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, which many who new Nixon consider the most accurate cinematic portrayal of Nixon*).

Elvis v Nixon is an entertaining and surprisingly humorous look at one of the most unique movements of modern political history. Anyone who, like me, finds Richard Nixon one of the most fascinating (finding Nixon fascinating does not mean aggreement with his assaults on civil liberties, his foreign policy interventionism, or his expansions of the federal government via the EPA, OSHA, imposing wage-and-price controls and, especially, severing the last link between the US dollar and gold) figures in modern American history will particularly enjoy this film.

*Political junkies, especially those fascinated with Nixon, will enjoy Frost and Nixon. However, there are a number of historical inaccuracies. The biggest one is the scene where Nixon proclaims that "If the President does it it's not illegal."

As you can see in this clip, in the movei, Nixon practically screams it under intense questioning by Frost about Watergate, and immediately seems to back down.

In reality, as you can see here, Nixon made the statement with efforts to undermine anti-war protesters and made it in a very mater-of-fact way -- almost as if he was stating something everyone already knew -- and he certainly did not express any regret.  The way Nixon made the statement is actually more chilling than the movie's portrayal, especially since Nixon's statement has been conventional wisdom amongst Presidents of both parities.

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