In 1970, Elvis Presley stopped by the White House to issue a bizarre request: He wanted to say hello to President Richard Nixon and be made a federal agent-at-large. The appeal led to a meme-worthy photo of Elvis and Nixon shaking hands. Despite larger-than-life character work from Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey as the two figures, the story is squandered in “Elvis & Nixon.” The script imagines how the King’s self-aggrandizing eccentricities may have led to the photo op, and explores the power balance in the pop-culture meet-cute. Ed Shearmur‘s bouncy score indicates we should read this breezy caper like a comic book, in case the broadly entertaining battle of wills between Shannon and Spacey wasn’t enough of a clue. The actors test one another like boxers perpetually about to throw the first punch, but all the buildup around their encounter is flabby and forgettable.
Shannon’s Elvis is an intriguing figure, keenly aware of the division between his own personality and the character he plays in the American landscape. Stubbornly willful and insulated from common experience, he’s a lonely guy driven by ego and impulse. He can’t resist slipping into self-parody (“thankyouverymuch” is staple dialogue), but he also understands the power and currency of his fame. Law agencies over the years have humored him with honorary deputy badges, and he sets his sights on a federal badge. (Priscilla Presley believes the federal badge was all about being able to travel freely with guns and drugs, a notion the film only vaguely flirts with entertaining.)
Spacey’s Nixon is less flashy than his counterpart. The actor plays the former President as a pompous toad, and it’s a broad counterpoint to his more nuanced work as a politician in “House Of Cards.” Spacey makes a good sparring partner for Shannon, and while his Nixon has so little backbone it’s a wonder he can stand upright, there’s a smug power in his POTUS. It is not a flattering portrait, or even a particularly sympathetic one, but even with some tenderness in Liza Johnson‘s (“Hateship Loveship,” “Return“) direction, this is not a giving sort of movie.
Even so, the two actors, on their own and in scenes together, are peering around the boundaries of each man’s iconic fame, working not only to define who they are as people, but how those people relate to their carefully crafted alter-egos. The fact that neither actor particularly resembles either character actually helps in this regard.
Elvis explains the process of putting on his public costume to confidante Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and his resignation to the fact that people revisit their own experiences when they meet him, rather than seeing him as a person. He’s an object. So in the moments where Elvis and Nixon begin to seem like they’re willing to set aside their masks to engage one another directly, things get interesting.
The script, from Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes, is clearly based in part on publicly available documents pertaining to Presley’s trek to the White House. Even so, the film has the whiff of a big con — a sensation not dispelled by that upbeat score, which sounds as if inspired by David Holmes‘s music for Steven Soderbergh‘s ‘Oceans‘ films. Shannon and Spacey each have a bit of a wink in their performances, rooted perhaps in their often successful efforts to squeeze some nuance out of the situation. Those touches combine with other false notes to create an awkwardly comic tone.
Helpfully, Colin Hanks works to bridge the two big lead performances with his portrayal of Egil Krogh, the Nixon staffer who later went to jail for his role in Watergate. This isn’t a version of Krogh historians are likely to accept as definitive, but he keeps pushing the movie forward, and it needs all the help it can get.
Alex Pettyfer earns sympathy in his portrayal of Jerry Schilling, which is softly remarkable given his previous work; and Johnny Knoxville capers as Sonny, another in Presley’s coterie. These two roles pull the film in bad directions, however: farce, and ticking-clock drama, thanks to Schilling’s need to get back to LA from DC in order to salvage his relationship. The only reason we have to invest in either guy is in their relationship to Elvis, and there isn’t likely to be even a moment where anyone cares whether or not Schilling saves his love life.
“Elvis and Nixon” builds all its basic intrigue on questions answered before the film even begins. Will Nixon assent to the meeting, and ultimately the photo op? Of course he will. The story notes leading up to those situations are little more than cartoonish exercises in wheel-spinning. In a sense, Shannon and Spacey might as well be playing Road Runner and Coyote, chasing one another around the Oval Office, laying traps and countermeasures, ultimately getting nowhere despite all their efforts, and taking us with them. [C-]