The photograph of Elvis Presley meeting President Richard Nixon is the most requested photo in the National Archives. The story of how that photo came to be is the subject of Director Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon.
In December 1970, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) decided to take a trip to Los Angeles to see his friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Petyfer). Jerry had been part of Elvis’ crew known as the “Memphis Mafia,” but was trying to make his own way outside of Elvis’ sphere of influence. Elvis wanted Jerry to accompany him on another trip to Washington D.C. Elvis wanted to go to D.C. to meet with President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) in order to ask him for a badge designating him a Federal Agent At-Large—whatever that is. As Jerry knew, and the film depicts perfectly, Elvis was not a man who took “No” for an answer, so Jerry accompanies him to D.C., where they meet up with another member of the “Memphis Mafia,” Sonny (Johnny Knoxville). Elvis literally pulled up to the front gate of the White House to deliver a letter to the president, asking for his badge. Nixon, though, wasn’t interested in meeting with Elvis, but two of his men, Bud Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), think the meeting could only benefit the president. Of course, the meeting eventually happens, but while Jerry continues to feel the pull of rejoining Elvis, he’s more concerned with getting back to California and his girlfriend, Charlotte (Sky Ferreira).
Elvis & Nixon is a very funny film, but more absurd than jokey. It’s a fairly simple story, which is fine. Some of the best films are really only short stories. However, in telling most of this story through Jerry, the film tries to add a little more meaning to this story than it really deserves. This is partly due to the fact that by the end of the film, Jerry’s personal story is shown to not have much weight to it at all. He resists Elvis and is really the only person to challenge him, but he ends up capitulating in the end anyway, (sorry, spoiler alert, I guess). So the real appeal of this story isn’t in what’s happening, but in watching Elvis and Nixon interact with everyone and each other—that’s where the fun really happens. Also, while the soundtrack is really great, I was wondering one thing: where’s all the Elvis music?
While the whole cast does a great job here—Knoxville and Hanks are especially hilarious—the whole film hinges on the performances of Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey. Both actors give fantastic performances. Neither of these two actors look anything like the real life people they’re portraying, but both completely nail both Elvis and Nixon’s mannerisms and presence. From Spacey, this is old hat. He is a proven impressionist and has shown his chops in both film and on television—like on Inside the Actors Studio. The real surprise was Michael Shannon, who has typically played intense dramatic roles. However, he has been known to let his hair down and do some comedy here and there—last year’s The Night Before is a great example. I’m sure trying to embody such a beloved figure like Elvis was a daunting prospect, especially when there are a million and one impersonators in Las Vegas alone—a bit that makes for a great gag in the film. Shannon delivers like a pro, though, and presents an Elvis that is very sure of himself, but insecure at the same time. He needed his buddies around to make him feel safe and when Jerry tries to break free of him, it makes Elvis a little antsy. Just a really great unexpected performance from Shannon.
Overall, Elvis & Nixon is a lot of fun. It’s not the greatest film ever made, but it’s a neat little story that makes for a fun diversion at the theater with great starring performances from Shannon and Spacey.