The meeting that occurred between Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon in 1970 was a fairly insignificant event in US history. Since Presley and Nixon were such fascinating individuals, though, even the most minor aspects of their lives are still pretty interesting to hear about. That’s probably the best way to describe Elvis & Nixon. Liza Johnson’s film isn’t an incredibly deep character study that’ll make you see these men in a totally different light. It is an absorbing little comedy, however, that’s sure to hook your attention.
Michael Shannon plays the King, who spontaneously decides to travel to Washington, D.C. on a quest to save his country. Alex Pettyfer’s Jerry Schilling and Johnny Knoxville’s Sonny West accompany Elvis like a couple mob enforcers. Arriving at the White House with a scribbled letter, Elvis requests an audience with President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) and to be sworn in as a Federal Agent at Large. Naturally, his bizarre demand is denied at first. However, Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peter) both see how this meeting could benefit Nixon and attempt to set it up.
Needless to say, Shannon looks nothing like Elvis Presley. Even his wig almost seems like something that could be purchased from a Halloween store. Regardless, Shannon still wonderfully captures the spirit of Elvis, walking a fine line between being laidback and completely unpredictable. Carrying multiple firearms everywhere he goes, Elvis behaves as if he’s not merely the king of rock and roll, but king of the world. People are typically so star-struck upon encountering Elvis that they usually do give him whatever he wants, but Shannon doesn’t come off as egotistical or cocky in the role. He portrays Elvis as a very charming cool cat, despite his erratic actions.
Although Shannon does a terrific job at channeling Elvis, he interestingly never sings in the film. Ironically, Kevin Spacey is probably a better singer than Shannon in real life. Speaking of Spacey, he’s also a ton of fun as Nixon. Granted, this isn’t the most complex depiction of America’s most controversial president. You can go watch Oliver Stone’s Nixon or Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon for that. While Spacey performance leans more on the comedic side, he nails all of Nixon’s mannerisms without turning him into a flat-out cartoon character. He’s just the right amount of over-the-top here. The same could be said about his performance as Frank Underwood, who remains the most despicable president Spacey has ever played, but not by much.
The film does eventually work up to the meeting between Elvis and Nixon with both of these acting giants playing off each other to perfection. What’s so fascinating about this encounter is that nothing really happened at the end of the day. It didn’t save Nixon’s political career, it didn’t aid the country in any way, and it’s still unknown is Elvis ever even used his Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge. All this event resulted in was a photo of Nixon and Elvis shaking hands, which is the most requested image from the National Archives. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, though, Elvis & Nixon has more to say than one would expect.