On December 21st, 1970, Elvis Presley, the King, met with Richard Nixon, the Leader of the Free World, in the Oval Office for about 40 minutes. The photo of the two icons shaking hands is the most requested in the National Archives. What was discussed? This was before Nixon started taping all his conversations. No one knows what transpired during that meeting. So Elvis & Nixon, directed by Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship) from a script by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and actor Cary Elwes, imagines what happened. It ain’t fact, but it is damn entertaining fiction.
Even when I didn’t buy a word being said, I went with the flow. Why? Two reasons: Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Tricky Dick. Watching great actors swing for the fences is something special. And, boy, do they go for it. Shannon is at a disadvantage, since he doesn’t look or sound like Elvis, whose Southern charm doesn’t match up with Shannon’s dark-eyed threat. But Shannon eases into Elvis’ humor and finds his heart. Spacey, a natural mimic, nails Nixon from the get-go, all paranoid pauses and suspicion about devil rock and the counterculture. It’s a deft characterization that never drifts into caricature.
Elvis & Nixon feels padded when it’s not focusing on the two kings. Colin Hanks and Evan Peters show up as White House staffers. And Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville play members of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia. But only when the two giants collide does the film find its surreal comic footing. Elvis wants to join the FBI as an undercover agent to root out who’s selling drugs in high schools. Spacey’s reaction is a thing of beauty. Elvis & Nixon is a mixed bag as a movie, but Shannon and Spacey are not to be missed.