Early on the morning of December 21st, 1970, Elvis Presley rolled up to the front gate of the White House with a letter for President Richard Nixon. The King of Rock n’Roll wanted a meeting with the leader of the free world — more specifically, he wanted to be sworn in as an undercover narcotics agent. Presley delivered the handwritten note to a befuddled guard, who passed it up the ladder until it reached H.R. Haldeman, the infamously flinty Chief of Staff. By sunset that evening, Elvis was standing in the Oval Office, posing for a snapshot with a smiling President Nixon. Of all the images in American history, that (now easily Google-able) photograph became the most requested picture in the National Archives. It sounds like an interesting story, but Liza Johnson’s asinine “Elvis & Nixon” will shock you with how little you care.
Taking place just two months before Nixon’s notorious taping system was installed in the White House, “Elvis & Nixon” can be construed as an ode to a more innocent time, when public figures still left a little something to the imagination. Johnson (“Hateship Loveship”) certainly embraces a playful spirit with this frothy bit of make-believe — from the porny guitar licks that open the film to the broad sight gags that push the action along, her film aspires to be nothing more than a breezy trip through time. Unfortunately, this milquetoast romp falls short of even that low bar. If everything that happened in the Oval Office was this forgettable, it’s no wonder why Nixon had recording devices planted there.
Told with the gravitas of a comedy sketch and the edginess of the funny pages, “Elvis & Nixon” at least has the good sense to appreciate that its namesakes were larger than life, each walled off from the world in their own way. Joey and Hanala Sagal’s lifeless script does well to take an indirect approach, using one of Nixon’s most trusted aides as an access road to this higher strata of notoriety. As played by “Magic Mike” star Alex Pettyfer, Jerry Schilling is a wooden slab of a man, dignified and loyal to a fault — he’s the Robert Kardashian to Elvis’ “Juice.” Trying to make it on his own as a menial job at a Hollywood studio, Schilling can’t help but ride to the rescue when the King phones him up in need of a friend.
The decision to cast Michael Shannon as Elvis is the film’s most beguiling choice, and also it’s saving grace. In the storied tradition of people isolated by their own fame, the rock god is introduced from inside the windowless basement of Graceland, his rhinestoned Xanadu. The scraggly actor who plays him doesn’t appear to be a fitting choice for the role — beyond being white human males with all four of their limbs intact, the two men share almost no resemblance. And yet, in much the same way as Cate Blanchett’s performance in “I’m Not There” channeled an ineffable truth about Bob Dylan better than any male actor ever had, Shannon captures the ecstatic essence of who Elvis was at that point in his life. Playing a guy who, at 35, was already over the hill and tumbling down the other side towards, the 41-year-old Shannon just has to grimace in order to capture how acutely Elvis was feeling the fade of the limelight. Of course, it helps that Shannon is famously opaque to begin with, and that natural impenetrability is at the heart of what makes his Elvis so much fun to watch.
If only the film ever gave him anything to do. Elvis and Jerry spend nearly an hour of screen-time puttering around D.C., waiting to hear if they’ve secured an audience with the President. We’re put through every step of the bureaucratic rigamarole they have to endure as they make their way up the chain of command, and each of the gatekeepers is less interesting than the last. Eventually, it’s Nixon aide and hardcore Elvis fan Egil “Bud” Krogh (Colin Hanks) who brokers the inevitable meeting.
Nixon is the most parodied of presidents, and it’s a thankless task for any actor to assume the role. Nevertheless, Kevin Spacey’s broad caricature opts for safety over strength, resulting in an overfamiliar performance so hammy that it may not be kosher for Passover (which, incidentally, begins on the same day this film hits theaters). Spacey isn’t exactly known for his subtlety, but this Nixon makes the cartoonish president he plays in “House of Cards” look like a Chekov character by comparison.
If there’s an upside to Spacey’s approach, it’s that he and Shannon are so obviously lodged in their own loony atmosphere that it leads to the film’s only compelling question. Who is more insulated from reality: A president, or a rock star?
Nixon shapes the world from the confines of his office, and yet he can hardly relate to another human being — on a micro level, he struggles to engage in conversation with anyone outside of his staff, and on a macro level he’s an agitated power-monger who thinks of his constituents as a burden. Elvis, on the other hand, has been completely subsumed by his persona, so cut off from the workaday world that he tries to bring pistols on an airplane; so blinded by the aura of his own fame that he can’t understand why it might be difficult for Jerry to ditch his job (and his fiancée) in order to fly across the country on a boneheaded spirit quest. There’s delusional, and then there’s a living icon thinking that he’d make for a plausible undercover narc.
But Shannon makes it engagingly hard to get a steady read on the King’s actual motives for wanting a badge as badly as he does (does he actually care about the war on drugs, or is he suffering from a crisis of confidence and looking for something to do?). If only the film weren’t in such denial of the fact that Elvis’ relationship with reason is far more interesting than his mildly abusive friendship with Jerry — the script is too scared of cracking the sweetness of its candied shell to engage with anything so thorny, and Sagal is busy milking the film’s strange premise for laughs that never come.
Regarding which of the film’s eponymous legends is more tightly sealed within their own bubble, we’re left with something of a stalemate. The takeaway from this movie, which resonates with the staying power of a gentle breeze, is that politics and pop culture have become inextricably co-dependent. In its own way, the meeting that inspired “Elvis & Nixon” anticipated our current climate as presciently as the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley helped shape it — 46 years later and we’re gearing up for an election between a reality show host and a recent guest star on “Broad City.” If only all of that weren’t already so clear in the photograph. The movie adapted from it may offer a lot more to watch, but somehow it presents far less to see. Just scroll down and save yourself the time.
“Elvis and Nixon” opens in limited release this Friday