Elvis & Nixon. Elvis Aaron Presley and President Richard Milhous Nixon. Respectively played by Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey. Together in a dramatization of the actual real-life meeting between the soon-to-be-disgraced leader of the free world and The King himself in December 1970.
I’m really not sure what more I have to say here. The premise speaks for itself. Plus, the film is only 86 minutes long, so it’s not like we have a lot of ground to cover.
The film is brought to us by writers Hanala and Joey Sagal, the latter of whom is a professional Elvis impersonator who makes a cameo appearance in the film. That’s right — Elvis meets an Elvis impersonator in the film. It’s pretty much exactly as funny as you’d expect. Oh, and get this: The third writer on this script was Cary Elwes. Yes, THAT Cary Elwes. As if this strange little hodgepodge of a film wasn’t crazy enough.
Well apparently, somebody really did think it wasn’t crazy enough just yet. Because then somebody went and cast Johnny fucking Knoxville.
Knoxville and Alex Pettyfer respectively play Sonny West and Jerry Schilling, two longtime friends of Elvis who accompany him to D.C. The difference between them is that Sonny is all about using his famous friend as a way to get drugs and women, while Jerry has a steady girlfriend back home and he’s been actively trying to escape the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Of the two, Jerry is ostensibly the one who’s most in touch with who Elvis used to be, as opposed to who or what he became after the stardom.
So naturally, Jerry gets a lot of screen time in this movie, complete with a subplot in which he has to balance his current activities in D.C. with his responsibilities to his girlfriend back home (Charlotte, played by Sky Ferreira). Alex Pettyfer gets through it all without embarrassing himself or sinking into the wallpaper, which is definitely a step up where he’s concerned.
Elsewhere, Colin Hanks and Evan Peters show up as the presidential staffers who arrange the meeting. The characters are played as a couple of comic relief toadies, though Hanks and Peters are both able to convey the kind of bright-eyed intelligence you’d expect from a couple of young men who’ve earned positions in the White House. And they also seem like exactly the sort of overly ambitious yes-men who’d be implicated in Watergate. Which, as the title cards tell us at the end, they eventually were.
But since it’s Elvis driving the plot forward, he’s the one who gets most of the screen time and storylines. Michael Shannon may not have been anyone’s first choice to play The King, but of course he knocks it out of the park because he’s Michael Shannon and he’s talented enough to make fine work out of any role he chooses.
The movie does a lot to humanize The King, portraying him as a man not really stuck up his own ass so much as he’s lost in all the glitter and glamour. Elvis always knows exactly what a big deal he is and why he’s such a big deal, but Shannon’s portrayal is incredibly soft-spoken for how loudly he dresses. Moreover, he makes a clear point to address his star-struck fans with the utmost respect and charm. With every meeting, he knows that the other person will go to their grave talking about the day they met Elvis, and he genuinely tries to make the memory a pleasant one.
But behind closed doors, Elvis is always aware about the superficial and artificial nature of who he is and what he does. Somewhere deep down inside, Elvis is still a war veteran who loves his guns, his god, and his country. Elvis was just another good old southern boy before he made it big, and he seems deathly afraid to lose that part of himself if he hasn’t already.
Then the ’60s came to an end, and the whole country was awash in anti-Communist, anti-drug, Cold War paranoia and propaganda. Elvis got caught up in that just like everybody else. So he sees all that, he gets convinced that his beloved country is going down the shitter, and the old war veteran decides to get up off his ass and do something about it.
More specifically, Elvis wants to offer his services as an undercover narcotics cop (because who wouldn’t sell drugs to Elvis if he asked, right?). To that end, his big plan is to go to D.C. and ask President Nixon to formally make him an undercover “federal agent at large”. Is that even a thing? Nobody seems to know for sure. But Elvis tends to get what he wants, and meeting with him could potentially get Nixon a ton of popular support for his initiatives and also his re-election.
Oh, and also, Nixon has a couple of young adult daughters. That’s a huge factor.
The film makes a clear point about how Elvis and Nixon (and by extension, all of our idols) are just ordinary people under all the bluster and razzle-dazzle. The point definitely comes into sharper focus when the two of them finally meet, as they aggressively disregard the expected protocols and find some common ground to talk about. That said, Elvis is at a distinct advantage here, since Shannon has so much more screen time to develop his character. We see what Elvis is like in his hotel room when no one else is around, but we never ever get to see Nixon outside the Oval Office.
But what really makes the difference is that while Shannon actually bothers to underplay Elvis at times, Spacey makes no such effort. Granted, Nixon was always a notoriously cartoonish windbag, but Spacey goes through the entire film like that without even trying to be subtle about it. And it’s really hard for a film to humanize Nixon when he’s being played like a goddamn cartoon character. Though I’ll gladly admit that Spacey makes it a lot of fun to watch.
(Side note: I’d recommend Frank Langella’s performance in Frost/Nixon as an example of how an actor can impersonate Tricky Dick in a way that leaves plenty of room for nuance.)
It’s tempting to think that Elvis & Nixon leaves a lot of potential untapped. As much as the film works to humanize these two icons and explain the importance of their meeting, there’s definitely a sense that the filmmakers could have and should have gone further. But then again, considering that this whole movie is based on a ten-minute meeting and a photograph, I’m not sure what more anyone could have expected.
Ultimately, the film is well-acted, funny in places, and it has more than enough heart to get by. But considering that the film only barely qualifies as feature-length even with all the padding thrown in, it’s not exactly worth going out to pay full price for. This is the kind of movie that was made for home streaming. In fact, given that the movie was produced by Amazon Studios, that may quite literally have been the case.