“Shannon and Spacey deliver a fun history lesson in ‘Elvis & Nixon’”
Directed by: Liza Johnson
Starring: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, and Evan Peters
“Elvis & Nixon” - “Do something worth remembering.” - Elvis Presley
“My concern today is not with the length of a person’s hair but with his conduct.” - Richard M. Nixon
With the unofficial title of “Leader of the Free World”, the President of the United States regularly accepts visits from various heads of states. On December 21, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon received an impromptu visit from royalty, musical royalty, that is. In fact, this person was (and still is) considered “The King”, and his name was Elvis Presley. Based upon an actual event from almost 46 years ago, director Liza Johnson guides two heavyweight actors - Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey - on this odd, but highly notable meeting between two of the most famous men of the 20th Century.
Admittedly, this two-person, Oval Office assembly certainly does not rise to the importance of the Treaty of Versailles or anything, and Johnson’s nifty comedy astutely recognizes this fact by offering a cinematic runtime of just 85 minutes. On the other hand, she simultaneously treats the material with great care and allows Shannon and Spacey plenty of room for two rich, highly amusing and - at times - hypnotic performances.
When we first see Elvis (Shannon), he feels anything but hypnotized by the four television sets in his Graceland living room and instead, feels disgust. Although he makes his living on rock ‘n roll, Elvis holds conservative values and is none too pleased with the drug culture and its byproducts, namely youthful rebellion and protests blaring on the TV news. Elvis wants to help his country in some way. His proposal (which I will leave out of this review) sounds fairly preposterous to his friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), but The King wrote a letter to President Nixon (Spacey) and wants to hand it to him at The White House, and well, The King usually gets his way. Through a series of smartly-placed sequences - like airport security allowing Elvis to carry handguns on a commercial aircraft - the audience quickly learns that yes, Mr. Presley usually gets his way, so why not meet the president on a random Monday?
Johnson throws some real obstacles in Elvis’ path, and mostly in the form of Nixon’s reluctance, but yes, the meeting does eventually occur, otherwise we would not have a movie. The real suspense and anxiety of the film revolves around how this personal summit will go, because everything about Shannon and Spacey’s performances - leading up to their initial face-to-face talk - foreshadows a brutal car crash.
Now, Shannon’s angular facial features do not resemble Elvis at all, but he sports a black wig, a black suit with wide lapels, two fistfuls of dollar-sized rings, and a cool-cat speaking delivery and accompanying manner which completely convinced this critic that Elvis Presley is actually walking and talking on the big screen. Shannon’s pulse never seems to rise above 35, as Elvis navigates through various hurdles with an “oh shucks” persona and southern charm, while White House security, airline ticket agents and secretaries respond with amazement and swoon. He is hilarious and mesmerizing, and Spacey matches Shannon - scene for scene - with his portrayal of Nixon.
Spacey’s hairline resembles the former president, but he also captures his mannerisms, all-business attitude and cynicism. Of course, this titanic meeting between the two offers the very best moments of the film, but Spacey is also very funny when handling his presidential handlers, Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters). Krogh and Chapin desperately want the president to visit with Elvis, but he cleverly shoots down their early attempts as only Nixon could, with casual dismissiveness and sarcasm.
Like Krogh and Chapin, Schilling and his pal Sonny (Johnny Knoxville) try to manage their boss Elvis as well but with little success. Elvis simply does what Elvis wants to do, and Schilling cannot really reason with him, but he owns a special knack for opening the right figurative doors for The King. The movie does spend some unneeded time on Schilling’s domestic challenges, as he attempts to be a dutiful boyfriend to his Los Angeles girlfriend and also a confident for his world-famous friend.
Elvis and Nixon obviously are the stars of “Elvis & Nixon”, and through this stylish time warp - which truly looks and feels like 1970 - the audience receives a quirky history lesson wrapped in acting brilliance. Just before the closing credits, the film also brilliantly commemorates the actual occasion in a surprising way, and we learn that Elvis did yet another something worth remembering and discover whether or not Nixon appreciates a person’s conduct, regardless of the length of one’s hair. If only all history lessons were this fun! (3/4 stars)