Michael Shannon plays Elvis Presley and Kevin Spacey plays Richard Nixon in Elvis & Nixon, a "revealing and humorous" movie that tells the backstory of the most requested photo in the history of the national archives. It opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.
Much like 2008's Frost/Nixon, the film captures a specific episode in the life and times of Richard Milhous Nixon. But unlike that film, Elvis & Nixon has no aspirations to assail the president's legacy or to add to the robust scholarship surrounding Watergate. Rather, it merely attempts to capture a peculiar meeting and the elaborate stage management required to make it happen.
Presley, in uneasy repose at Graceland, is troubled by the state of America's youth in the early '70s. The drugs, the violence, the anti-patriotism. He decides, late one night, that he'd like to be deputized as a "U.S. Marshall at large" -- a nonexistent position. He enlists a former manager (Alex Pettyfer) to arrange a meeting with the president of the United States. Because why not?
In Washington, two Nixon aides (the appropriately square Colin Hanks and Evan Peters (American Horror Story, X-Men)) are intrigued by the proposal -- Elvis literally drives up to the White House gate to deliver a handwritten note -- and conspire to get their boss to meet with the King. They hope the stunt might generate some publicity with the nation's disillusioned youth. There's talk of a potential TV special.
But Nixon's not sold. The meeting would interrupt his nap hour. Presley dallies around D.C., suffering everything from incredulous stares to swoons as he awaits details from the White House and both sides pull strings.
Both Shannon and Spacey are gifted leading men. And though neither bear much physical resemblance to the mega-celebs they here portray, their performances are commendable less for the imitation than for the interpretation. Shannon, eminently mutton-chopped and bell-bottomed, is often soulful and somber as Presley. In a scene which might double as the movie's thesis, he admits the pain of being known as a character and less as a man. Yet he wields the power of that character to get precisely what he wants. It's unclear if he doesn't know or doesn't care how ridiculous he sounds when he says he'd like to go undercover: "I've been in 31 Hollywood films. That makes me a master of costume and disguise." His desire to disappear is a tease, of course, given his eventual (and controversial) "death." Shannon never sings as Elvis, but he does grant us the pleasure of a "thank you, thank you very much."
Spacey overcomes the initial challenge of creating a Nixon sufficiently distanced from Frank Underwood, his character on the Netflix show House of Cards, and here presents as a gruff and earnest dad, dealing with Elvis as he might have dealt with a precocious teenager, asking to be considered for a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
The final act of the movie is essentially just the two men talking. And the comedy of Elvis's various impositions (he drinks Nixon's personal Dr. Pepper; he asks if his assistant can be driven to the airport by the presidential motorcade) is appreciated in the larger context of the scene work: two veteran performers lending their talents to two vaunted 20th century figures, measuring the size of each other's celebrity in the Oval Office.