Film: Elvis & Nixon
Director: Liza Johnson
Primary Cast: Michael Shannon, Alex Pettyfer, Kevin Spacey, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Johnny Knoxville, Sky Ferreira
US Release Date: 22 April 2016
It’s December 1970, and Elvis Presley (Shannon) is (possibly) quite disturbed by the direction in which his country is heading. So, in an attempt to become an undercover “federal agent at large” for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs—and to (possibly) help the US in the process—Elvis travels to DC with his friend, Jerry Schilling (Pettyfer). In LA, Elvis and Jerry meet up with another old friend, Sonny (Knoxville) and make their way to the White House to deliver a letter that Elvis has written to President Nixon (Spacey).
Thanks largely to Nixon administration members Egil Krogh (Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Peters), Elvis’s letter makes its way to Nixon. Though the president is reluctant to meet with a figure like Elvis, persistence, persuasion, and celebrity eventually win out, and The King gets his meeting (as well as a badge to show for it).
Liza Johnson’s film inspired by a photograph depicting Elvis and Nixon—and by the strange meeting behind it— is an odd, partially historical comedy that is as baffling as it is amusing. Anchored by a mostly pleasant, occasionally absurd, and ever-so-slightly dark sense of humor—and elevated considerably by the presence of Michael Shannon—Elvis & Nixon makes for a mostly enjoyable movie-watching experience. That said, the film suffers from a lack of substance, and it often wanders without clear direction. It’s not a bad way to spend 90 minutes, but Johnson’s take on the meeting of two icons also fades from memory without leaving much of a mark.
I don’t know how historically inaccurate or accurate the film is, but that doesn’t really matter. Elvis & Nixon lives in a complex space that combines history with myth, speculation, and comedy. As ignorant as I am of the time in which the film is set, it was never less than clear to me that a good deal of creative invention went into the writing of Elvis & Nixon. The film’s off-kilter tone, its sense of humor, and even its casting choices all signal that it exists well within the realm of fiction—despite any truths it may contain.
That said, I remain unable to say whether knowledge of what it was like to exist in a world where Elvis or Nixon was ubiquitous in American popular culture would damage or improve the film. My instincts say that personal memories of a time when either figure was relevant would certainly inform a viewer’s experience of the film, but I do not know precisely how they would do so. Elvis is little more than a name to me, and I was only a toddler with Nixon died in 1994. So any image I have of Elvis and Nixon is as flat, as colorless, and as incomplete as the photograph at the heart of the film. But perhaps that’s true for most viewers (whether they’d like to admit it or not).
As I’ve already indicated, there is something slightly off about Elvis & Nixon. In this case, “off” is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does impact how the film is experienced regardless. For instance, as pleasant as watching the film can be, it is also quite puzzling. Lurking behind just about every important scene in the film is the question of why it was made. Whose idea was this? Why did they want to tell this story? Who wanted fund it? Was it all just an excuse to let Spacey air out his Nixon voice for a bit? And who on earth decided to cast Michael Shannon? And so on, and so forth. The unspoken (but not unseen) absurdities of the film do feed into its comedic mode, but they also have the potential to distract viewers from its characters and their respective journeys. Consequently, viewers who embrace the somewhat bizarre tilt to Johnson’s film will have a much better time watching it than those who don’t.
But back to the decision to cast Michael Shannon (99 Homes, Midnight Special) as Elvis Presley. As strange as it seems—and for the first few minutes of the film, it seems rather strange indeed—it actually works. When Elvis & Nixon begins, Shannon feels out-of-place, but that changes quite quickly. By the time Elvis and Jerry reach the White House, Shannon’s presence, skill, and magnetism transcend any differences in appearance between him and the “real” Presley. In fact, Shannon’s performance is both the best and the most important in the film. He sets the story in motion, he gives viewers a mystery to grapple with, and he is responsible for the majority of Elvis & Nixon’s emotional force. In light of this, it’s crucial to note that Shannon’s portrayal of Elvis is not an impression. He doesn’t over-do an accent or try to resurrect The King through sheer imitation. Instead, he interprets Elvis and presents viewers with a unique and multi-dimensional character for them to chew on.
Conversely, while Spacey may seem like a perfectly reasonable choice for the role of Nixon, he fails to bring much more to the role than his face and a voice. I’m a huge fan of Spacey’s work (both in House of Cards and in a variety of films), but his Nixon is somewhat unimpressive next to Shannon’s Elvis. That said, the few scenes in which Shannon and Spacey both appear are some of the best and most interesting in the film, and the energy between the two actors goes a long way toward keeping Elvis & Nixon on the right side of watchable.
As formidable as Shannon and Spacey are as actors, and as larger-than-life as their respective characters are, there is still something anticlimactic about Johnson’s film. The build-up to Elvis’s meeting with Nixon takes up a great deal of time, but the meeting itself is over in minutes, and nothing about it feels particularly significant. As frustrating as this will be for some viewers, it may also be the point. Perhaps Johnson and script-writers Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes are trying to say something about how meaningless any interaction between Nixon and Elvis might have been. They were just two men. Neither knew the other. They talked for about half an hour. Regardless of any similarities between them, nothing more came of their conversation. And that’s that.
And yet, if Elvis & Nixon is meant to shrink the aura of mystery surrounding its titular characters and to bring them down to size by injecting their meeting with a dose of common reality (which, in this case, is never too far from comedy and the absurd), the film still lacks weight. As amusing as Elvis & Nixon is, it fails to convey any clear or impactful message, and it remains mostly surface. There are hints of depth throughout the film (most of them coming through Shannon’s portrayal of Elvis), but they don’t quite add up to anything particularly noteworthy or affecting.
Elvis & Nixon is not perfect. Many of the jokes work, most of the performances are engaging, and there are some intriguing ideas about fame, facades, politics, and personal connection scattered throughout. At the same time, the film moves quickly and doesn’t make the mistake of trying to prolong its strange comedic endeavor any longer than it should. Unfortunately, it lacks force and polish, and it may leave many wondering whether it should have been released on HBO instead of in theaters.
Until Next Time
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