Elvis & Nixon (2016)
dir. Liza Johnson
written by: Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, Cary Elwes
starring: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters
2.5 out of 4 stars
With the popularity of Batman v Superman, I have been calling Elvis & Nixon, the new comedy from Amazon Studios, “Elvis versus Nixon”. This was mostly done in jest at first; the trailer portrayed a mismatched duo very much at odds with each other. Then it got stuck in my head, and I would always end up repeating the title twice, swapping inaccurate conjunctions with the proper one. The movie finally arrived in its hometown of Seattle, so it only felt right to go see this one, as I’m still waiting to see Batman v Superman–along with this week’s new big release The Huntsman: Winter’s War–for as little money as possible.
Elaborating on the little known meeting of rock legend Elvis Presley and resigned President Richard Nixon, we find this encounter is developed from the single photograph from that day. How is it that the 35-year-old war vet musician came to the White House gates to meet with the pre-impeachment leader of the free world? Director Liza Johnson and screenwriters Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes (yes, The Princess Bride’s Cary Elwes) attempt to fill in the gaps. Their production is quirky, full of varied awkward moments imagined between the two notorious men. The humor is present, but it is not aided by the writing which never rises out of circumstantial yammerings. The few outright jokes regarding Nixon’s M&M’s or The King’s gun-strapped body are spoiled in the trailer. Very little is exemplary, but the actors manage to have some fun with what they are given.
Michael Shannon tackles Elvis Presley in a much different role than we’ve come to witness from the southern roughian. Recently seen in Jeff Nichol’s underwhelming but solid Midnight Special, Shannon’s Elvis Presley is rather spot on, exactly how the viewer would imagine the dichotomously liberal and conservative legend would act in attempting to procure a much desired federal agent badge. His voice mimicry adds the goofiest portions of Elvis’s personality to the movie, and even without the strongest writing to back him up, Shannon manages to spur laughter.
Kevin Spacey, taking a much different approach to a controversial politician than his House of Cards character, plays Nixon with an even more oft portrayed Nixon impersonation. Warbling jowls and pre-Reagan conservative banter present, Spacey delivers the more jovial side of the disgraced president. Elvis is stepping into his territory, so Spacey plays the president for reaction to Shannon’s eccentric portrayal. A hand slapping scene, though weird and sudden, allows Spacey to monopolize on the flabbergasted politicians astonishment at the karate kicking superstar who wandered into his private hour. Both have ample fun, and these two excellent performers manage to do their best with limited material.
Though lacking the creativity one might hope for in such an intriguing premise, the impending demise of both men blankets the film in an unexpected shadow. Presley declines rapidly through the 70s, leading to his death in 1977. Nixon resigned in 1974 following the Watergate scandal. At such a disruptive time in US history, we find two powerful men within a ridiculous situation before things start to slide downhill. Were these the death rattles of great men attempting to maintain their position, or was this just an odd encounter that has presented ample legend? It’s assuredly the latter, but the former is so much more enticing.