There is a famous photograph in the White House Archives featuring two unlikely people – actor and rock star Elvis Presley and US President Richard Nixon – following a meeting at which only they were present. It has become the most requested image in the archives, and that meeting is rich with comic and dramatic potential – this is what Elvis & Nixon wants to mine. To its credit, some of it is very good, but it is a touch too eccentric and its dramatic elements often fail to hit.
In December 1970, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) is perturbed by the state of the nation, and decides it is time for him to offer his service to his country. He shows up at the White House with a letter requesting an urgent meeting with President Nixon (Kevin Spacey) – his idea is that he will be sworn in as an undercover agent in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, and help right the course of the nation’s youth. Nixon is hostile and dismisses the idea, but his staff can see the political value of such a meeting and are eager to set it up. The result – the Oval Office and the most powerful man in the world play host to the most famous.
Michael Shannon does not look like Elvis at all, but this fact adds more to his portrayal than it takes away. His is a captivating version of a man locked into a myth of his own creation – this is Elvis before his weight gain but after a sense of alienation from the modern world had set in. What we find in Elvis & Nixon is not an Elvis impersonation, but rather Shannon using his own natural magnetism as an actor in a fashion akin to that of the King.
Shannon’s interactions with Spacey are without doubt the highlight of the movie. Spacey again does not look like Nixon (although his impression is quite good), but he plays the president as impatient and surly, with a nice line in deadpan. We get a good idea of what makes each man tick, although Spacey has far less screen time and wiser tones down his performance in favour of his co-star.
It is a shame, then, that the film takes quite as long as it does to reach the titular confrontation, and then treats it as just another act that is over a bit too quickly when it should have been the main focus of the movie. It must be an hour before we wind up in the Oval Office, and most of this time is following Elvis from place to place as he charms various people – these scenes are nice and charming (and occasionally amusing), but it goes on for too long and it starts to reach samey fairly quickly. It tries for some incredibly dramatic moments – Elvis lamenting the death of his twin, Nixon talking about being ugly – but they come across as heavy-handed and somewhat forced.
Similarly, and presumably for the purpose of allowing the audience suitably to identify with (both Elvis and Nixon are so far away from real life it is untrue), we spend a lot of time with minor characters who aren’t interesting or expanded enough. There is a bit of stuff about the girlfriend problems of Elvis’ best friend, and a lot of stuff about interoffice politics in the White House, but who really cares? We have Elvis and Nixon, Shannon and Spacey, and all this tedious stuff is merely taking time away from that?
Elvis & Nixon is a film that is good, but should have been better than it is. It tries to do a bit too much and, in doing so, it spends too much time away from what should have been its main focus. The movie stumbles a bit on the dramatic moments, but it does funny well – I feel like the genesis of two good approaches to this film can be found here but, in trying to mix both, we have an average version of both. I enjoyed Elvis & Nixon and would recommend it – the good almost outweighs the less good.
Director: Liza Johnson
Cast: Michael Shannon (Elvis), Kevin Spacey (Nixon), Alex Pettyfer (Jerry), Johnny Knoxville (Sonny), Colin Hanks (Krogh), Evan Peters (Chaplin)
Running Time: 86 Mins