Before President Richard Nixon began religiously recording his conversations, he had one of the most curious meetings the Oval Office has ever known. In 1970, Elvis Presley came to the White House out of grave concern for the perils that faced our nation. What the two talked about is unknown, but the new docu-comedy Elvis & Nixon imagines it was probably about the dangers of communism, drug culture, and The Beatles.
Directed by Liza Johnson, Elvis & Nixon is a willfully ludicrous film, headlined by two stars mythic in their own times. The towering and oft intimidating Michael Shannon mellows out his intensity and slings on a sweet cape to play the over-the-hill icon. Kevin Spacey drops his wicked smirk, leans into his jowls, and bubbles with mercurial bravado as the scowling statesman. And Johnson knows you’re salivating at the thought of their mysterious meeting, so she teases out its eventuality and oddness to a curious climax. When we arrive, it’s showboating, scene-chewing and one-ups-manship that is dizzying and delightful.
Shannon and Spacey are titans of screen presence, battling in this austere setting like the kaiju in a Godzilla movie. I don’t mean that literally of course. Elvis and Nixon never come to physical blows. Instead, they wield their lackeys, meet-and-greet riders, status symbols and power (political or pop cultural) to determine who is truly top dog, the President or the King. Along the way, they discover a grudging mutual admiration, because how few could relate to their weird and disorienting level of fame and influence?
Honestly, I’d tell you to see Elvis & Nixon for its final act alone, but Shannon is stellar through the whole damn thing. Elvis introduced lounging in front of three TVs at once, gun in hand, because one of those sets is gonna’ get it. He’s tiring of the hollowness of fame and the dropped jaws of abject adoration wherever he goes. He wants to make a real difference. He wants to be an “agent at large” for the FBI. Or at the very least, he wants a badge from the President. Grinning like he’s in on some cosmic shenanigan, Shannon graciously allows us to giggle over Elvis’s larger-than-life presence and gonzo desires. He struts through wide shots of the White House’s conservative but auspicious halls, his tall figure draped in Elvis’s outrageous apparel (which includes the kind of massive gold belt that wrestlers go to war over). The juxtaposition plays the comedy so he has no need to. He just needs to cozy into the King.
But Shannon’s too savvy to give us a solely silly Elvis. He masterfully layers in pathos with the occasional broken smile, the stray glance of disappointment, or the flustered monologue about his isolating hardships. Even in this “loosely based on real events” romp, Shannon will bring you to the brink of tears.
Spacey gets less chance to brew complexity, but is still tons of fun whether he’s wagging his finger in Elvis’s face, pleading with his starstruck teen daughter, or declaring with an absolute bewilderment over this absurd meeting of the minds, “Who the fuck set this up!?” Backing these lively leading men are Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, and Johnny Knoxville, bringing sharply comic supporting turns as the pair’s ever-appeasing right-hand men. And then there’s Alex Pettyfer.
You might remember Pettyfer as the “next big thing” a couple of years back. A handsome English hunk, he fronted films like I Am Number Four, Beastly, and Endless Love, and even co-starred opposite Channing Tatum in Magic Mike. Yet he never quite launched. And here as Elvis’s childhood friend/handler Jerry Schilling, Pettyfer is given an almost impossible task. He is put up against two deeply dynamic actors, and wedged in with a B-plot that regularly feels like a half-hearted “Meanwhile…”
As one of the world’s most powerful leaders and “The most influential entertainer on the planet” ponder the future of our nation, and their own legacies, Schilling is mainly focused on getting back to Los Angeles to propose to a frowning girlfriend we see in brief, shapeless spurts. It’s a plotline that is perhaps meant to ground the story, but instead makes its lean 87-minute running time feel bogged down by bits of banality.
Elvis and Nixon works best when it’s focused on Elvis and Nixon, whether in their actual screen time, or the laughable hoops others will dive through to please these impossible icons. And for all of these moments, it is a joyful and imaginative exploration of a historical enigma. For all those moments, it’s worth your time.
Elvis and Nixon sees its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. A theatrical release will follow on April 22nd