If you want to know about the tone of “Elvis & Nixon,“ if you want to have an idea of its comedy, just look at the casting of Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley. Here’s an actor more suited to playing Lurch on “The Addams Family“ than “The King.“ He’s tall and menacing. He has a cold stare. He’s not charming, but alarming, all of which makes him ideal for this movie, which is more like an absurdist lampoon than a straight account.
In real life, when Elvis told President Nixon that he wanted to become an undercover agent, he probably just seemed silly. When Shannon says it, he seems downright insane, and were it not for the historical record, we might fear for Nixon’s safety, especially the fairly sympathetic Nixon we find here, played by Kevin Spacey. This Nixon is practically being held hostage by a lunatic, and the situation is definitely rich enough for a terrific sketch on “Saturday Night Live.“ But for an 86 minute feature film, it’s a stretch.
Written by Joey and Hanala Sagal, as well as the actor Cary Elwes (“Robin Hood: Men in Tights“), “Elvis & Nixon” is based on the real-life meeting of two titans at the summit of power, each destined for a dramatic fall. In December of 1970, Elvis showed up at the White House, unexpectedly, with a letter for President Nixon and a request for a meeting. Alarmed at the direction of a youth culture that was growing away from him, Elvis wanted to work as an “agent at large” for the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Freud might theorize that Elvis felt angry at the decline of his cultural relevancy, and so he acted on an unconscious impulse to arrest and punish people for no longer being his fans. Moreover, he wanted to attribute their disaffection, not to movies like “Clambake,” but to the influence of narcotics. That he fantasized about working undercover speaks to the extent to which he felt outside of things.
In any case, the Nixon administration – colossally out of touch – thought that a photo of the president with Elvis might speak to America’s youth. (This is, by the way, just seven months after the shootings at Kent State.) And so they granted the meeting.
But in the film, nothing happens right away. Basically, anything worth watching in “Elvis & Nixon” either involves Elvis, or Nixon, or both of them. But there isn’t enough material for a whole movie, so everything must be stretched. When stretching isn’t enough, the movie must find yet another source for drama outside of Elvis and Nixon. And so it finds one in the dilemma of Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), a former member of Elvis’ inner circle, who is recruited by Elvis to accompany him to Washington.
Jerry is torn. He feels affection for Elvis, and he is drawn to the Elvis way of life. But he has a fiancee, and on the day the movie takes place, he is expected back in Los Angeles at night for an important dinner with the girlfriend’s parents. He’s going to ask if he could marry her.
You see the problem, don’t you? Jerry’s dilemma is very small, and even worse, in a movie about Elvis and Nixon, he’s not Elvis or Nixon. There’s something else, too. Jerry’s loyalty for Elvis was predicated on Elvis actually being recognizably human, as he certainly was in real life. But Shannon’s Elvis is a farcical figure, an intentionally comic creation, ideal for the scenes with Nixon, but not someone to inspire devotion in an underling. In this way, the two strains of the movie – the Schilling strain and the White House meeting – are in conflict.
What we’re left with is a film that has some good comic moments, but also dull stretches in which viewers may find themselves checking out or unexpectedly fighting fatigue. Shannon is worth seeing, and so is Spacey – hunched over, doing a funny impression of Nixon’s voice and body language. But the actors are better than the material.
‘Elvis & Nixon’
Rated: R for some language
Starring: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer
Directed by: Liza Johnson