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'Elvis & Nixon' plays with an odd moment in history

Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey succeed in making us care about the little-known 1970 encounter between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon.

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President Nixon shakes hands with Elvis Presley in the Oval Office in Washington, DC, in December, 1970, after their little-known meeting. "Elvis & Nixon" is the comedy movie that re-imagines the unlikely encounter between the two cultural giants. The film opens in US theaters April 22, 2016, after premiering at New York's Tribeca film festival.

Oliver F. Atkins/White House/Nixon Library/Handout via Reuters

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The most requested photo in the National Archives is the 1970 image of Elvis Presley shaking hands with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. The conjectural back story to that oddest of encounters is the basis of “Elvis & Nixon,” starring Michael Shannon as the King and Kevin Spacey as Nixon. 

The meeting came about because Elvis, distraught at the druggy counterculture of hippies, wanted to work as an undercover federal agent to ferret out wrongdoers.

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The ironies abound in this scenario – written by Joey and Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes and directed by Liza Johnson – but the entire enterprise is played straight.

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Nixon, at first, angrily dismisses the idea of a photo-op confab with Elvis. But finally, at the urging of one of his starstruck daughters, he comes around when it looks as if the meeting might be a vote-getter for him. The extended scene between the two men, which constitutes the core of the film, comes across as a vaudeville act in which both participants are playing the straight man.

Shannon, in the essentially unplayable role of Elvis, does rather nicely at conveying the King’s sly, taciturn pigheadedness, and Spacey, a master of mimicry, turns Nixon into much more than a revue sketch parody. He makes you actually feel for the guy, which is no small achievement.

Given the high quotient of hypotheticals in the story line, “Nixon & Elvis” can’t really be said to add to the historical record, but it’s an entertaining, deadpan jape that, with a bit of tweaking, could probably work as a stage play.

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