“Elvis & Nixon” attempts to look behind the most requested photograph in the US National Archives, but its fiction fails to find anything substantial from that brief real-life meeting between two famous American figures, which, as far as I could see from the movie itself, seems to be no more than a tiny eccentric anecdote in both of their lives. In fact, the movie is not even that humorous enough to engage us during its short running time, despite its two wonderful lead actors who surely deserve better than this.
Michael Shannon plays Elvis Presley, and the movie is about Presley’s one quirky day in 1970 December. While spending time alone as usual at his residence in Memphis, Tennessee, he happens to get an unrealistic idea of being appointed as a federal agent, and he promptly steps outside for getting what he wants. He takes an early morning flight to LA to meet his old friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), and then they fly together to Washington D.C. Shortly after their arrival in Washington D.C., they attempt to deliver Presley’s personal letter directly to none other than Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey), and then they wait on the top floor of a posh hotel in the city along with their friend Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville), while Schilling is looking for any possible way to have Presley allowed into the White House to meet Nixon and then appointed as a federal agent with a badge.
Meanwhile, Presley’s letter manages to be sent inside the White House mainly thanks to his celebrity status, and two White House staff members Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) are excited about this unexpected opportunity. Although neither their direct boss H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan) nor Nixon is particularly interested, Krogh and Chapin see the potential of good publicity from the meeting between the King and the US president, and they soon come to work together with Schilling to make the meeting possible.
The movie spends more than a half of its 86-minute running time to this preparation process, but this part is not terribly interesting besides a few small amusing moments. Schilling and the other supporting characters around Presley or Nixon remain to be flat, mediocre caricatures throughout the film, and the screenplay by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes just trudges along with them without any sense of narrative momentum. In case of a subplot involved with Schilling’s girlfriend who is not so pleased about his sudden absence, this feels more like standard filling material instead of providing additional dramatic tension, and it only becomes more redundant along the story without generating any significant dramatic weight.
Shannon does as much as he can with his role, and I like how he balances his character between humor and pathos while walking through his scenes with mandatory charisma as required. Although he has been tired of his huge star persona for years, Presley is also quite accustomed to getting whatever he wants through his enormous celebrity, and there is an absurd scene where Presley sincerely tries to convince a baffled DEA deputy director that he is an ideal guy to be an undercover agent for drug cases. It looks like he really wants to help his country in many troubles including the Vietnam War, but he seems to have no idea about how silly his idea actually is.
Astutely maintaining the elusive deadpan attitude of his performance, Shannon lets us glimpse the humanity of his character. Presley is indeed your average capricious superstar full of whims and quirks, but he is also intelligent enough to recognize the gap between Elvis the King and Elvis the man, and Shannon has a small poignant scene when Presley confides his personal feelings on that widening gap to Schilling during their private moment.
On the opposite, Kevin Spacey is adequate as Richard Nixon although his performance is not allowed to have enough time to establish itself in the movie in contrast to Shannon’s. It goes without saying that he resembles Nixon no more than Philip Baker Hall in “Secret Honor” (1984), Anthony Hopkins in “Nixon” (1995), and Frank Langella in “Frank/Nixon” (2008), but Spacey channels Nixon’s distinctive persona well even though his character often seems to be in the area of Saturday Night Live sketch, and he and Shannon give us a certain degree of expectation while they are acting separately for nearly an hour.
Sadly, the last 20 minutes which finally focuses on the awaited meeting between their two characters is anti-climactic to say the least. While watching them together on the screen, my mind soon began to drift away to how fascinating both Spacey and Shannon have been in their long respective careers. After his Oscar-winning breakthrough turn in “The Usual Suspects” (1995), Spacey has usually been a compelling actor to watch regardless of the quality of his movies, and the same thing can be said about Shannon, who drew my attention for the first time through his rather strained supporting performance in “World Trade Center” (2006) but then has kept impressing me for his fruitful collaborations with Jeff Nichols in “Shotgun Stories” (2007) and “Take Shelter” (2011) as well as his shattering Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “Revolutionary Road” (2008).
If you simply want to watch Shannon and Spacey playing together on the screen, “Elvis & Nixon” can be a lightweight fun for you, but I must point out that there are better films which are more enjoyable and insightful in many aspects. I cannot recall any particular good movie about Presley right now, but “Secret Honor” and “Nixon” tell a lot more about Nixon through their respective fictions, and “Frost/Nixon” provides a far more compelling story via the dynamic interactions between its two real-life title characters. Furthermore, there is also a small political comedy named “Dick” (1999), which deserves to be mentioned for its rich comic elements including Dan Hedaya’s wry performance as Nixon. Compared to all these interesting films, “Elvis & Nixon” looks like a forgettable minor affair – and that is all.