Elvis and Nixon review 1

At first glance, the 1970 picture of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon shaking hands in the Oval Office looks flat-out bizarre. The flamboyantly attired musician makes for a striking contrast to the staid politician, and it’s a little jarring to realize that not only did these two people once inhabit the same universe, they actually crossed paths once. Somehow, the story behind that picture is even stranger: To Elvis, at least, this was no mere photo up but a meeting to discuss his swearing-in as an undercover federal agent-at-large for the Bureau of Narcotics.

Liza Johnson‘s Elvis & Nixon is about that how that meeting came to be and what happened when these two larger-than-life figures finally collided, with Michael Shannon as the King and Kevin Spacey as Tricky Dick. But it’s less about the vast differences between this two men than the one thing, even more than a shared distaste for the counterculture of the times, that truly bound them together: the strangeness of fame. 

The film opens with Nixon in a meeting with two of his aides, Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) and Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks). They inform him he has a meeting with Elvis, and the president demands, “Who the fuck set this up?” Elvis did, as it turns out — he’s decided that he’s unhappy with the direction the country has taken, and that the best way for him to contribute would be to infiltrate the counterculture as a federal agent-at-large. So Elvis jots down a letter to the president, picks up his friend and former assistant Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) in Los Angeles, and approaches the northwestern gate of the White House with a request to meet the president.

Obviously, this is a crazy thing to do. Just as obviously, it’s exactly the kind of thing that makes perfect sense for Elvis, because, well, he’s Elvis. People are dying to meet him, eager to give him the benefit of the doubt, desperate to heap love and glory and special attention on him. Elvis isn’t just the man who has it all, he’s the man who can have anything else he wants. Which, for all his high-minded talk about the state of society, may be the real reason he wants that federal badge so badly. Elvis casually reveals that he’s already got dozens of honorary badges, most of which he probably didn’t even ask for. Here, finally, is something that actually takes some effort to obtain, something that contradicts the shallow image other people have of him and legitimizes his deeper beliefs about himself and his place in the world.

Elvis and Nixon review 2

And Nixon proves a tough nut to crack, at least by Elvis standards. The totally square president can’t see the value in meeting an entertainer, even as his advisers point out it’d be great PR, and only grudgingly agrees to a five-minute sit-down after Jerry and another of Elvis’ sidekicks, Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), promise an autograph for Nixon’s daughter in return. Meanwhile, Jerry feels torn between an exciting life on the road with his BFF Elvis and a sturdy but unglamorous life with his girlfriend, which is exactly as uninteresting as it sounds. The subplot was probably meant to ground Elvis & Nixon in a more ordinary perspective, but Pettyfer is too bland to hold his own against his more colorful co-stars.

Throughout Elvis & Nixon, both the cast and crew making the film and the characters within the film itself seem aware of just how absurd this all is. Elvis’ requests are met with bafflement by DC higher-ups, lackeys on both sides share wordless can-you-believe-this glances with each other, and the script and Johnson’s direction at times seem to be winking at the camera. But Johnson works to balance the inherent humor of the situation with the drama underpinning it, and if anything she might be too successful. Both the comedy and the tragedy feel somewhat muted, leading Elvis & Nixon to feel a little bit slight.

Elvis and Nixon have to be two of the most frequently impersonated figures in American pop culture, and Shannon and Spacey hit all of the usual marks — the voices, the tics, the ways of moving. But their performances are less about imitation than about interpretation. Spacey makes his Nixon larger than life without turning him into an outright caricature. He’s enjoyable, if not exactly likable. There’s a bitterness and an intelligence to him that allows us to understand how this man clawed himself into the same spotlight as the more naturally charismatic Elvis Presley.

Shannon doesn’t remotely look like the King, no matter how many black wigs or gold chains or aviator glasses you pile on him, but it doesn’t much matter. Shannon — along with Johnson and screenwriters Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes — digs deep to find what’s soulful and sad and vulnerable about the King. His Elvis sees the gilded cage of fame for what it is, but finds his worldview distorted by it anyway. “I become an object, a thing, no different from a bottle of Coke. They never see me. They never see that boy from Memphis, Tennessee,” he laments to his one true friend Jerry, before admitting, “I don’t know know if I know who he is anymore.”

It’s not exactly a spoiler that Elvis and Nixon eventually meet; we’ve all seen that photo. But the machinations that go into setting up that meeting almost have the jazzy feel of a heist, albeit a pretty slight one with relatively low stakes, and all the effort feels worth it once the two titans are actually circling each other. (Especially since it involves Michael Shannon doing karate.) Throughout the film, both Elvis and Nixon are surrounded by staffers who’ve dedicated themselves to anticipating their every need, interpreting their every mood, and smoothing over their every obstacle, on a worldwide stage surrounded by citizens watching their every move. For a few brief moments in the Oval Office together, each finds, to his great surprise, someone who’s actually in a position to understand him.

/Film rating: 7.0 out of 10

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