Elvis & Nixon
2016, R, 86 min. Directed by Liza Johnson. Starring Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts, Tate Donovan.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 22, 2016
That photo, so definitive yet so enigmatic: Elvis Presley, the king, and Richard Nixon, the president, shaking hands in the Oval Office. It’s the most-requested image from the National Archives, which must indicate something about the photo’s deep allure. Nixon, the physically awkward leader who regarded the populace as something of a hindrance to governance, captured with a broad and uncommon grin while shaking the hand of the nation’s hip-swiveler-in-chief dressed in full Elvis regalia. It provides concrete evidence of the pileup of politics and pop culture. Politics, like rock & roll, can make for strange bedfellows.
That photo, recorded on Dec. 21, 1970 (two months before Nixon installed the Oval Office tape-recording system that led to his undoing), is the subject of Elvis & Nixon, a speculative movie about that meeting between the two men and what led up to it. Some of the facts are known, but details of the conversations and motivations are conjectural. Elvis, a longtime fancier of guns and badges, had the crackpot notion that he should be appointed to the nonexistent post of federal agent-at-large. His stated goal was to be of service to his country by infiltrating the counterculture to help stamp out the nation’s growing drug problem and communist threat. In her autobiography, Elvis and Me, his wife Priscilla Presley offers an alternative scenario: The badge would allow him to legally cross any border wearing guns and carrying drugs. Whatever the reason, it was something Elvis desired immensely, and launched this crazy Christmastime escapade.
Helping Elvis & Nixon remain in conjectural mode is the fact that neither actor – Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Nixon – looks particularly like the character he is playing. Yet both actors make their roles believable through apt choices in body language and vocalization. The unusual casting selections may require a brief period of adjustment on the part of the viewers, but in the long run, help cement the idea that the film is only a guesstimate of what happened, not the real deal. Watchers of House of Cards are sure to enjoy Spacey’s more subdued portrayal here of a U.S. president, and Shannon, underplaying rather than overplaying the larger-than-life figure, again demonstrates his shrewd acting skills and instincts. Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville as Elvis’ accompanying aides-de-camp, and playwright Tracy Letts as a government functionary, are all also delicious in subordinate roles. Director Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship) keeps things moving at a good clip (the film is only 86 minutes long), but the screenplay by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes, could have dug more deeply. Nagging at the sidelines of Elvis & Nixon is the suspicion that sometimes a picture really can be worth a thousand words. For all its goofy charms, this comedy still doesn’t crack the ultimate enigma of that famous photo.