Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Elvis and Nixon

“Batman v. Superman: Dawn Justice” also explodes onto Blu-Ray this week.

There’s a scene mid-way through “Elvis and Nixon” that perfectly encapsulates how well the movie is made. It involves Elvis (Michael Shannon) presenting Nixon (Kevin Spacey) with the gift of a World War II era service revolver. The gun is clear—i.e., no bullets in it. The Secret Service made sure of that. But the way that Elvis is holding the gun, he’s casually pointing it at Nixon’s chest. Nixon is unphased, as he should be—he knows he has nothing to worry about. But watching the scene, I couldn’t help feel an incredible amount of dread and tension that the gun would accidentally discharge a bullet right into Nixon’s chest.

Of course, Elvis Presley did not shoot Richard Nixon. I know this. Had things gone down like that, it would have been a major historical event and one we still talk about today. But the performances by Shannon and Spacey are so electrifying and convincing. I was so invested in the characters and their meeting that I was genuinely worried about something that did not and could not happen. Preposterous, I know, but there we are. That’s the power of great performances.

Another testament to the strength of the performances by Shannon and Spacey—both of whom have proven themselves numerous times to be character actors of the highest caliber—is the fact that even though the two actors don’t look like Elvis or Nixon, it doesn’t take long to forget all about that. Of course, the fact that the real Elvis and Nixon had very distinct personality traits has something to do with it. But what Shannon and Spacey achieve is more than mere imitation. They take all of the personality quirks, speech patterns, and mannerisms from both historical figures and use those aspects to make the characters their own. Shannon and Spacey don’t just play Elvis and Nixon on a superficial level—they embody them.

“Elvis and Nixon” clocks in at a brisk 86 minutes, but that’s plenty of time to tell the story. It’s a relatively straightforward one about Elvis’ concern with the pervasive drug culture in America circa 1970. He believes that he can go undercover and infiltrate the areas of the music industry where drugs are encouraged and celebrated. To do this, he wants to meet with President Nixon and be made a “Federal Agent at Large.” Much of the first half of the movie is focused on the events leading up to the meeting, as aides on the Nixon side (Colin Hanks and Evan Peters) work with Elvis’s friends/assistants (Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville) to make the meeting happen.

Elvis’ request sounds strange on the surface, but listening to him explain himself and what he wants to do, it makes sense. “Elvis and Nixon” could have made Elvis look ridiculous, and painted the whole situation in a farcical light. I appreciate the tone that director Liza Johnson takes in giving this story the respect and reverence it deserves. The portrayal of Elvis in the movie is that of a man who has a deep sense of national pride, and one who cares about young people and the wrong path many of them are taking by using narcotics. He truly wants to do all that he can to help.

Having said that, “Elvis and Nixon” should not be mistaken for some kind of somber, preachy character piece like “Selma.” The reverence is there, but it’s not laid on so thick that any sense of humanity, i.e, seeing these characters as real people, is clouded by it. Elvis and Nixon are major figures of their time, but they’re not gods. Elvis is a man with grave concerns for his country and his future. Nixon is more than the president—he’s also a father. A strong case can be made that this meeting—and the famous photograph that came from it—is all because President Nixon wanted to make his daughter happy. It doesn’t get much more human than that. Buy it on Amazon: Elvis & Nixon [Blu-ray].

Also Out This Week

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

It’s an amazing phenomenon. Before the premiere of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” everyone talked about how wrong Ben Affleck was for the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne and that he’d ruin the movie. Once it came out, people realized that the best thing about “Batman v. Superman” was Ben Affleck. The rest was a bit of a bloated mess.

It pains me to write that because I love the characters of Batman and Superman. I wanted to like this movie much more than I did. The main thrust of the story is solid: After the destruction witnessed in “Man of Steel,” should Superman (Henry Cavill) be allowed to fly around with his power unchecked? Many say no, including Bruce Wayne, whose Metropolis-located building was destroyed. Wayne then dons a metal bat suit to go out and do battle with Superman, whom he sees as reckless and destructive.

In spirit, I love this kind of thing. How many movies do we see where untold destruction and property damage occurs, and not a thought is given to all of the people who are affected by it? In the reality of the movie, people’s lives would be shattered when their homes are destroyed and loved ones are injured or killed. The premise takes the epic battle and shifts the focus to a more micro level, looking at some of the individual lives that are affected.

“Batman v. Superman” starts off really strong and has a very profound thesis to explore. The showdown between DC Comics two greatest superheroes is just what we’ve been waiting for, and the movie delivers some exciting hero vs. hero action, as the title suggests. Then Lois Lane (Amy Adams) gets kidnapped for the umpteenth time and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) reveals himself to be an evil genius. Add to this an extremely odd and jarring dream sequence, plus the shoehorning in of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and it all becomes way too much way too fast. Luckily, they only hint at Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg as a way to whet our appetite for this franchise in the making.

In these days of superhero movie domination by Marvel Studios, I understand DC wanting to do something bold and ambitious and move things along quickly. The problem is that they, and director Zack Snyder, got a bit overzealous and tried to cram too much into one movie. It would have been better if they had concentrated on the Batman versus Superman conflict in the title, and saved the Lex Luthor/Doomsday story for another movie. I think the franchise would have been better served to have what we get in “Batman v. Superman” broken down into two movies of about an hour and 45 minutes each, rather than one overstuffed two and a half hour movie.

Still, for what it does accomplish, “Batman V. Superman” is serviceable enough. I wish the movie would have stayed focused on its theme more, and explored it more deeply. A better, tighter movie could have been made from the premise of the title. It puts the “Justice League” franchise off to a bit of a shaky start, but not one that should prevent further movies from being made. And it didn’t: A “Wonder Woman” movie with Gal Godot is now in post-production, and the next “Justice League” installment is currently filming. It’s good to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the “Avengers” franchise get a run for its money. Next year we’ll find out if DC can deliver. Rent it.

More New Releases: “Demolition,” about a man putting his life back together after losing his wife in a car crash, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts; “Outatime: Saving the DeLorean Time Machine,” documentary about the effort to save the iconic car from “Back to the Future;” and “Cuba,” with Sean Connery as a British mercenary hired to train General Batista's army against Castro's guerrillas.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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