“Elvis & Nixon” is based on the famous photograph taken in the Oval Office on December 21, 1970 of Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon post pow-wow where the latter improbably granted the former his wish of scoring a badge from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. This meeting, however, was not recorded on Nixon’s infamous taping system, which would only be installed a few years later, and so “Elvis & Nixon”, directed by Liza Johnson and bearing three screenwriter credits, dreams up what happened inside the Oval Office walls, akin to Andrew Fleming’s “Dick” (1999) imagining what was said in those infamous 18 ½ minutes of missing tape.
Trouble is you can’t have a feature film that’s merely one meeting in an office, and so “Elvis & Nixon” is padded by a lifeless and obvious subplot involving Elvis’s aide-de-camp Jerry Schilling (Andrew Pettyfer, dull) having to decide what’s really important, a sequence in which Elvis visits a diner in a predominantly black neighborhood in some ill-conceived attempt to apologize for his appropriation of African-American music and myriad scenes of girls going gaga for the King. Still, for all the superfluousness, Michael Shannon’s lead performance as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is so incredible, insightful and against type despite being the most notorious Americana archetype of all-time that it single-handedly warrants that too-long run time anyway, transforming a potential nonentity into something substantial.
The film opens with Presley home alone at Graceland, flipping through his wall of TVs, unimpressed with each offering, and finally, un-holstering his golden handgun and popping a cap in each screen. Then, he gets up and lights out for the Memphis airport, all on his lonesome, to catch a commercial flight, determined to take a meeting with POTUS. At the ticket counter, he displays his badge as special deputy for the Shelby County Sheriff’s office as his sole means of identification, even though everyone knows who he is, explaining that this is the first time he’s ever actually flown by himself. It’s a funny line but it’s something more; it’s the line that informs Shannon’s entire performance, one in which Elvis’s self-appointed seclusion from society caused this King’s place on the throne to gradually rot.
Shannon, obviously, does not physically approximate Elvis, but he doesn’t have to; he lets the clothes do the talking, providing an autopilot swagger inside them, as if his ready-made persona does the heavy lifting. As for the voice, Shannon does not do an impersonation, not exactly – it’s like, half an impersonation, like Elvis himself has starting imitating his own larger-than-life voice. When Shannon is made to say “It’s good to hold onto your dreams” to an impressionable young female character, he puts a spin on the words that makes them sound like a checked-out Elvis impersonator. In fact, there is a scene when Shannon’s Elvis comes face to face with a pair of over-the-top Elvis impersonators. That the impersonators fail to recognize Elvis for Elvis does not come across like a cheap joke but a deft evocation of how by December 1970 America recognized Elvis more as a caricature and less as himself.
Spacey has less time on screen than Shannon and is more content to root around in the already famous wackadoo nooks and crannies of our 37th President, honing in on the insecurity and the paranoia. And it is the paranoia where, improbably, both he and the King find a common ground in their tête-à-tête, both beset by an emotional seclusion that brings them together despite their running in extremely different social circles. It’s a strange scene, one that you keep waiting to get truly unhinged, or really ram home some overarching statement about our national condition, which it never does. And once it ends, the movie does too, because the movie doesn’t seem to have any other idea about how to end, essentially just disappearing in a puff of smoke.
That might be right. Despite his peddling the notion that he wants to help his country, you never really leave “Elvis & Nixon” convinced of Presley’s professed reasons for so desperately wanting a badge. Shannon plays him as a guy who thinks that the accumulation of all these badges might offer an escape hatch from the cocoon of his own celebrity, an existence from which he has already become detached, wandering through this entire movie as if he has already become a kitschy apparition.