Combine the oft-used expression “a picture is worth a thousand words” with the idiom “a fly on the wall,” and you will have the contagious vigor that is “Elvis & Nixon.” The most famous loose collar in the land meets the most-buttoned up Commander-in-Chief of this generation in a comedy of jovial possibilities. There is a better-than-good chance that not a lick of “Elvis & Nixon” is true, but that doesn’t ruin the fun of examining a documented moment of star-crossed brevity.
The film is inspired by the potential backstory behind this historic photograph, the most publicly requested item from the National Archives, greater than even the Constitution. On December 21, 1970, Elvis Presley met President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office to set up that magical snapshot. The wacky journey leading up to that handshake and conversation sets up our cinematic amusement.
Three days earlier, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon), without his wife or manager’s knowledge, flew a red eye from Memphis to Los Angeles to meet with his friend and former aide Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer). A longtime proponent of law enforcement and an avid collector, The King has the unshakable idea in his mind to be sworn in as an undercover, badge-carrying officer-at-large for the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He is not a fan of the hippy movement and drug culture of the present day and wants to bring his vast influence to that arena. He seeks an audience with President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) himself and wants Jerry and his fellow associate Sonny (Johnny Knoxville) to accompany him.
Arriving in the nation’s capital the next day, Elvis pulls up to gate at 6:30 in the morning to personally deliver a handwritten letter to the President. Elvis doesn’t make it past the gate, but his letter reaches the stunned and befuddled desks of Nixon aides Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks), Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), and White House Chief of Staff Bob Handleman (Tate Donovan). After twisting Nixon’s arm with the notion of improved southern and youth votes in being associated with the most popular public figure in the country, the meeting gets the green light and the toe-to-toe main event takes shape.
Leave it to “Elvis & Nixon” to flesh out the thousand words that might have come with that memorable picture. The dynamic lead performances of Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey make the lead-up and the eventual convergence an edge-of-your seat, manhood-measuring scene for the ages. Spacey’s celebrated impersonation skills are well-documented, making his Nixon accuracy in sound and mannerisms its own mini-clinic on fearless traits and nuance.
The “American Beauty” Oscar winner was the known quantity, but to watch Michael Shannon spin this yarn of flashy caricature as Presley is an absolute hoot. Everyone and their mother has an Elvis impression, but Shannon dove deeper to express more. To see the normally dour actor slip on this skin of decadence and then emanate a driven seriousness underneath his wispy drawl is a masterful feat of performance. Like The King himself, you can’t take your eyes off of Shannon and his gravity comes with its own galaxy of zip codes.
Hanks, Peters, and Knoxville earn their laughs and Pettyfer distracts some with his own subplot as the Virgil of this tall-tale. All take a Cadillac-sized backseat to the leads. Director Liza Johnson, who worked with Shannon on her debut feature “Return” in 2011, paves their road with groovy period detail while debuting screenwriters Cary Elwes (yes, that Cary Elwes) and Joey Sagal (with a polishing assist from Hanala Sagal) provide the cheeky banter and playful predicaments. In a quick 86 minutes, you will find it hard to wipe the smile away from your face.
Lesson #1: If you ever need to add attention to a given situation, drop the line “It’s a matter of national security.”– It works every time. That will get you noticed. The line might alert the proper response of authority or it could get you tossed into custody too. Use it wisely. When you’re Elvis and you wave that hand, it’s a line of swoon, not fear-mongering.
Lesson #2: Dueling protocols in a setting of decorum— Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon dump buckets of personality into their historical figures. Their opposing foam and froth collide in their quirks of differing manners. Nixon was clearly not prepared for the charisma and complexity clad in gold and velvet that walked into his Oval Office and ignored all of the rules. In the end, who gets what they want, The President of the United States of America or The King of Rock ‘n Roll?
Lesson #3: Seeing celebrities and public figures as people— Intertwined with all of this film’s farce is the spine of humanity outlined by this lesson. Elvis could balance pleasing people with adhering to his own radical convictions. Showcased with dramatic license or not, read his transcribed letter to Nixon. Those are the words of a concerned and eager citizen that just happens to be a celebrity. Presley had his share of hopes, dreams, and agendas and so did Nixon.