The most basic way of explaining the plot of Elvis and Nixon is that it’s a film about two mutual and equally delusional quests. Theorizing that his movie experience has given him a good background in disguise and infiltration, and that his karate skills ensure that he’s more than capable of defending himself, Michael Shannon’s Elvis – disgusted by the “youngsters” burning the American flag and the “communist elements” in the entertainment business – decides on a whim to visit the White House, hoping to be made a Federal Agent at Large.
At the same time, Richard Nixon’s White House Aides, Colin Hanks and Even Peters, hope that a meeting between Nixon and The King might boost the former’s approval ratings. In the opening scene, Kevin Spacey’s cranky Nixon wonders aloud “who the fuck” thought meeting Presley was worth sacrificing his mid-afternoon nap? Before anybody answers that, the film explodes into a glorious technicolor title sequence, complete with some vintage 70s funk. Immediately, this allows director Liza Johnson to establish an incredibly irreverent tone that remains irresistibly charming for the length of the film.
In many ways, a film like this lives or dies on the strength of its performances, and in this regard, Elvis and Nixon is impeccably cast. Michael Shannon has proved to be one of the hardest working actors this year. So far he’s appeared in Jeff Nichols Midnight Special (a performance I found to be quite cold), and he’s set to grace screens again in Werner Herzog’s science thriller Salt and Fire, Tom Ford’s drama Nocturnal Animals, and Nichols’ second film of the year, the Cannes-buzzed Loving. All of these films are likely to be much bigger than Elvis and Nixon, which is a shame because Shannon is almost pitch perfectly cast. Buried under a mountain of wigs and makeup, Shannon’s Elvis is more an investigation into the idea of what The King represents, as opposed to a straight up impersonation. Thicker, and far more lined than the singer himself every looked, Shannon plays a man that has become completely trapped in himself, primarily because he’s fallen for his own mythology. Treated like a literal King, this is an Elvis who’s forgotten the word “no”; a man who moves with the knowledge that everything he does will be completely fawned over. At times he plays a bit like a cartoon character who’s been reluctantly brought to life. Kevin Spacey, who has spent the last four years playing a particularly oily politician in House of Cards, seems to be having a great time as Richard Nixon. His Tricky Dick is far from the complex Phillip Baker Hall / Frank Langella / Anthony Hopkins study of the character, but this really isn’t the type of film that warrants complex study. In the film’s closing moments, Nixon calls his daughters and assures them that he’s a “pretty cool cat” after all.
While it might be a matter of taste for some that one of the most reviled American presidents is more or less presented as a slightly dotty and out of touch old man, the effect is very enjoyable, and it gives Spacey a chance to flex his rarely used comic muscles. Elsewhere, Evan Peters adds some typical smarm as Nixon’s chief White House Aid, and Johnny Knoxville proves to be adequate in a rare film role as a Sonny West, a good ole’ southern boy and a member of Presley’s ‘Memphis Mafia’.
The main flaw with Elvis and Nixon is ultimately its length. The film is just 85 minutes long, which feels criminally short, especially considering today’s ticket prices. Its running time gives the impression it would be more suited to a TV special than a film, and even at that, a TV special that should be fleshed out a bit more. En route to meet Nixon, Shannon monologues about how most of the time he feels like a product or an idea, like the Coca Cola bottle, more than he does a human being. Later, he mentions that his stillborn twin means that he got enough luck for two brothers, but privately he’d give it up for a brother. These moments jar with the overall irreverent tone of the film. Had the film been given more room to breathe (say, another half an hour), Shannon probably could have done a lot more with those parts of the script, which is really a shame.
Overall, the svelte running time does make me hesitant to recommend Elvis and Nixon, but that said, in terms of pure entertainment, it is incredibly enjoyable. You’d have to be very serious indeed to avoid smiling the whole way through.
Elvis and Nixon is in selected cinemas from Friday 24th June. Check out the trailer below.
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