How do you a find a new take on not one but two of the most imitated figures in modern history? From Forrest Gump to Bubba Ho-Tep, Secret Honour to X-Men: Days of Future Past, not to mention the cavalcade of films that bear their names, Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon are probably better known to us as personas than in person; partly by design, of course. Whether it’s the howling lycanthropic Nixon of Futurama or the gyrating heartthrob of Jailhouse Rock, only the core mannerisms remain in memory: the hunched back and beady-eyed stare; that cocky sneer and “a-thank you, thank you very much”. Though hardly an in-depth “character study”, Elvis & Nixon succeeds in getting — albeit shallowly — under the skin of both its leads.
The film details the lead-up to the meeting that took place between the king of rock n’ roll and “Tricky Dick” on December 21st, 1970. It all began a few days earlier when Elvis (Michael Shannon) suddenly left Graceland and flew to Washington DC with the stated aim of becoming an undercover “Agent at Large” with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs — in order to combat the rise of drug culture in the United States, don’t you know. Accompanied by two of his so-called Mafia Memphis, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and lookalike Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville), he set about trying to secure some face time with the man he thought most likely to make it happen: President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey).
Fortunately for Elvis, Nixon’s staff happens to include Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks), head of the Special Investigations Unit, and Deputy Assistant Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters). Both appreciate the positive impact an association with Elvis could have on Nixon’s appeal to the younger generation; even if White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan in cameo) takes some convincing. Krogh and Chapin make for an amiable pair of squares — they even have matching overcoats — but Watergate is on the horizon.
Elvis, meanwhile, has grown disillusioned with the life he leads. The film, directed by Lisa Johnson, never delves into his obsession with law enforcement, but it’s clear that this a man for whom the giggling women (when he’s there they giggle) and expensive jewellery (he’s a prisoner of his fashion regime) have lost their charm; even if he never does. His former associate Jerry — half handler, half friend — truly loves Elvis, but feels himself being drawn back into the orbit of a man who can’t help but be the centre of everyone else’s world.
Shannon, peering out from beneath that hair and those sunglasses, eschews all the markers of the usual Elvis performance. The accent, for instance, is his own. Instead, he offers an understated portrait of a public figure who, for all the karate and the stir he creates, feels like a UFO; serenely touches down where he pleases, seemingly oblivious to the world freaking out around him. It’s something of a departure for the famously intense Shannon — not least in being genuinely quite amusing. Aside from a brief inaudible scene involving an open-top car, two pretty girls, and CCR’s Susie Q, we never even hear him sing. Elvis & Nixon’s soundtrack notably features no Elvis — it would certainly make for a misleading addition to any CD collection.
Similarly, excluding one snippet of a phone conversation with Henry Kissinger, the film offers us nothing of Nixon’s politics. Spacey’s performance may be the more typical of the two — there’s the apelike hunch, the prickly demeanour, that oh-so imitable voice — but, even as a known mimic, there’s no sense of impersonation. Shannon and Spacey bring a subtlety to their respective roles that pays off particularly in the interplay between a legend and a president; Elvis obliviously breaking protocol, Nixon grudgingly coming to respect this kooky interloper.
Any such meeting certainly lends itself to comedy of the zaniest sort — Elvis believes his years of costume and makeup have made him a master of disguise — but it’s acutely observed enough that it never feels like its going for easy laughs. Elvis & Nixon’s script, written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes, may feel like a TV movie — a form in which the premise has already been offered — and offers a few stagey moments of self-reflection on Elvis’ part. Even so, the film, if not quite kingly, certainly won’t leave you feeling crook. A-thank you, thank you very much.