Given the enduring fascination with both Elvis and Nixon, it’s no surprise that films continue to get made off the back of their respective reputations. By bringing the pair together, this film offers something a bit different from traditional biopics. This playful movie is based on a real historical encounter, one that illustrates that the truth really is stranger than fiction.
On 21 December, 1970, a meeting took place between the two which resulted in the most requested photo in the US National Archives. As it occurred mere months before President Nixon started to routinely record his conversations, precisely what transpired has been lost to history. Instead, Liza Johnson’s largely speculative film is based on the testimony of associates. Another key source is the letter Elvis hand-delivered to the President – which the script quotes from directly – a missive that outlines his peculiar rationale for meeting, and gives significant insight into the warped mindset of this colourful character. Taking inspiration from his words, Johnson’s film plays up the surrealness of the encounter, without quite having the comic chops to do that justice.
Michael Shannon is an enjoyably left-field choice for a jaded, increasingly alienated Presley; he’s grown weary of the persona he has to tiresomely maintain, seems to be losing the plot, and yet still creates a stir wherever he treads. Assigned less screen time, Nixon is a more enigmatic figure: gruff, stubborn and played to perfection by Kevin Spacey.
When Elvis shows up in Washington DC to request an audience, Nixon is unimpressed by his celebrity status and is initially disinclined to oblige. All shook up about drug culture, political dissidence and “Communist brainwashing”, Presley is there to offer his assistance as an undercover government operative, keen to secure the title of “Federal Agent at Large”.
You may grow impatient waiting for the main event, as there’s little of substance to pass the time. The awestruck reactions of those who cross paths with the King are a fun, albeit fluffy and familiar, brand of filler, while a subplot involving the personal travails of Elvis’s right-hand man Jerry Schilling (a bland Alex Pettyfer) is of negligible interest.
Yet the encounter alone is worth the price of admission, not least to see these two thespian showmen bounce off each other with visible pleasure. Considering that their alter egos have also reached the peak of their professions, the attempts at one-upmanship are shameless – with Elvis particularly guilty of asserting his superiority over an often bemused Nixon. After a shaky start, the President thaws and they bond over their dislike of the media and the Beatles.
The superficiality of the treatment means there’s not much foreshadowing of the ignominy that awaits them both: the man known as “Tricky Dicky” is just four years from his resignation in disgrace, and Elvis is not even seven from his rather undignified, bitterly premature end. Moreover, if the film has a vague grasp of Presley’s demons, it’s less sure about Nixon’s.
With a screenplay by Joey and Hanala Sagal and the actor Cary Elwes, Elvis & Nixon plays like a sketch preceded by fairly cursory context. Regardless, Shannon and Spacey are a hoot in an entertaining if unenlightening effort that clocks in at a breezy 86 minutes. Bearing in mind the wealth of related, more exploratory material out there, the lighter touch is novel enough, even if it results in a film about two indelible figures that will itself be quickly forgotten.