If you want to know about the tone of Elvis & Nixon, if you want to have an idea of its comedy, just look at the casting of Lexington native Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley. Here’s an actor more suited to playing Lurch on The Addams Family than The King. He’s tall and menacing. He’s not charming but alarming, all of which makes him ideal for this movie, which is more like an absurdist lampoon than a straight account.
In real life, when Presley told President Richard Nixon that he wanted to become an undercover agent, he probably just seemed silly. When Shannon says it, he seems insane, and were it not for the historical record, we might fear for Nixon’s safety, especially the sympathetic Nixon we find here, played by Kevin Spacey. This Nixon is practically being held hostage by a lunatic, and the situation is rich enough for a terrific sketch on Saturday Night Live. But for an 86-minute movie, it’s a stretch.
Elvis & Nixon is based on the real-life meeting of two titans at the summit of power, each destined for a dramatic fall. In December 1970, Presley showed up at the White House, unexpectedly, with a letter for Nixon and a request for a meeting. Alarmed at the direction of a youth culture that was growing away from him, Elvis wanted to work as an “agent at large” for the Drug Enforcement Agency.
The Nixon administration — colossally out of touch — thought that a photo of the president with Elvis might speak to America’s youth. And so the meeting was granted.
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Unfortunately, this isn’t enough material for a whole movie, so everything here must be stretched. When stretching isn’t enough, the movie must find yet another source of drama. And so it finds one in the dilemma of Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), a former member of Elvis’ inner circle, who is recruited by Elvis to accompany him to Washington.
Schilling is torn. He feels affection for Elvis, and he is drawn to the Elvis way of life. But he has a fiancée, and on the day the movie takes place, he is expected back in Los Angeles at night for an important dinner with the girlfriend’s parents. He’s going to ask if he could marry her.
You see the problem? Schilling’s dilemma is very small, and even worse, in a movie about Elvis and Nixon, he’s not Elvis or Nixon. There’s something else, too. Schilling’s loyalty for Elvis was predicated on Elvis being recognizably human, as he certainly was in real life. But Shannon’s Elvis is a farcical figure, ideal for the scenes with Nixon, but not someone to inspire devotion in an underling. In this way, the two strains of the movie — the Schilling strain and the White House meeting — are in conflict.
What we’re left with is a film that has some good comic moments, but also dull stretches when viewers might find themselves checking out or fighting fatigue. Shannon is worth seeing, and so is Spacey — hunched over, doing a funny impression of Nixon’s voice and body language. But this time the actors are better than the material.
‘Elvis & Nixon’
Rated R for some language. 1:26. Fayette Mall, Hamburg.