“A rousing treat for audiences”

by Steve Pulaski

Elvis & Nixon may indeed be nothing more than simple fan-fiction, or even a more dignified, put-together Saturday Night Live skit with more exposition, but it’s also a film so quaint and subtle that you might miss its brilliance. Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon have the privilege, or misfortune, of living on as cultural icons of a bygone era, and as a result, both men have their cult of full-time impersonators and impressionists, some of whom even make a living as performing as them with all of their trademark quirks. The problem is that thanks to skits, parodies, and impersonators, our views of their impact and complexities as significant men in United States history has greatly been cheapened and diminished.

Thankfully, Elvis & Nixon gives us a film that balances genial humor and conviction so delicately it’s remarkable. It’s an extraordinary treat to watch two of the best, most seasoned actors working today (one of whom long overdue for mainstream recognition) perfectly portray the essences of both men rather than the blanket stereotype or farcical aspects of them. When you cut out the fluff and exaggerated, larger-than-life personas of both Elvis and Nixon, you get mannerisms, speaking patterns, and intricate ways both men conducted themselves while under pressure and in their every day life. The fact that both Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey can replicate these characteristics in such a convincing manner makes Elvis & Nixon a rousing treat for audiences and a low-key marvel just in time for the summer movie season, where things are known to get a bit loud and rambunctious.

Elvis & Nixon
Directed by
Liza Johnson
Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer
Release Date
22 April 2016
Steve’s Grade: B+

The film is based around the famous meeting between the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and the leader of the free world that took place in the White House on December 21, 1970. The photo of the two shaking hands has gone on to be the most requested photo reproduction in the United States National Archives. The film gives exposition as to how the came together and meeting might’ve gone, opening with Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) in such disgust with the state of America that he takes out one of the loyal pistols he always has on his person and shoots the TV. He quickly phones Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), his personal assistant and closest friend, expressing ambition to meet with President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) to discuss the rampant drug use, teen overdoses, and anti-American mindset that is sweeping his great nation.

In a sloppily penned letter to the president on an American Airlines flight, Elvis requests to be made a “federal agent at large,” complete with a badge and the government-granted ability to work undercover to infiltrate drug dens and crackdown on dope dealings. Of course, the absurdity of this circumstance baffles everyone who comes in contact with Elvis’ lengthy letter before the president even gets to read it. Nixon’s assistants Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), who later became instrumental forces in the Watergate scandal, have no clue what to make of the letter, while in the meantime, Elvis, Jerry, and their other friend Sonny (Johnny Knoxville) roam around D.C. in hopes that Nixon will see to their request.

I’ve said it enough times to sound like a broken record, but it must be said once more; Michael Shannon is a true force in each one of his films and gets almost no recognition for being such. Coming hot off a phenomenal performance of a cold-hearted Realtor in 99 Homes with few accolades to show for it, Shannon leaps into a role I’m sure no one would’ve initially seen him fit for. Shannon, for one, doesn’t have any resemblance at all to Elvis, and wears his age whereas Elvis was the poster-child for youthfulness. However, not even ten minutes into Elvis & Nixon this fact doesn’t matter in the slightest. Shannon embodies Elvis’s quiet, controlled mannerisms like no other performance of the King committed to film I can think of, speaking softly and steering as far away from the cheeky impersonations more-so than anyone before him. It’s destined to be one of the best (and, once again) most overlooked performances of 2016.

Kevin Spacey also does some damn-fine work as Nixon, echoing his croaky voice and unabashedly vulgar lexicon that was stubborn until proven short-sighted. Spacey has a similar acting style to Shannon in a broad sense, in that our limited knowledge of him makes him capable of leaping into any particular role, regardless of whether or not it bears a namesake, and completely knocking it out of the park. Yet these two acting powerhouses shouldn’t overlook the talented supporting cast; everyone from the roly-poly Johnny Knoxville, the stressed but composed Alex Pettyfer, and the overwhelmed Colin Hanks do a magnificent job at playing second-tier to the larger-than-life titular characters and their respective powerful performers.

The trio of writers, Joey and Hanala Sagal and even actor Cary Elwes, give these men a lot of free reign to work with in terms of not grounding them to a strict, bullet-pointed narrative, which helps allow Shannon and Spacey to use this film as a playground for their incredible talents. Elvis & Nixon isn’t narratively compelling in the sense that not a great deal happens, but compile the absurdist factor, the bizarre casting, the frequent humor, and the tremendous performances and this is a film memorable enough to live up to the iconic photo/event that inspired it.