Back in 2011 when it was announced that Universal Pictures would be making a movie out of the board game Battleship, jokes abounded about how they’d fill a 90-ish minutes on a concept like that. Five years later, Elvis and Nixon does that idea one better by making a movie based on a concept as paper-thin as, well, a photograph.
It’s a film based on one of the most popular archived photos in history, which was taken the day that Elvis met then-President Richard Nixon. If you’re wondering how they’re able to make a movie based solely on just this, take note that it’s not the first time this exact subject has been tackled on the big screen (the first being 1997’s Elvis Meets Nixon). Parts of the movie are rooted in truth, namely Elvis’ sudden, insistent desire to visit the White House in 1970, where he asked Nixon to be made an undercover federal agent “at large,” as he was fearing for the future of America. So, what’s little more than an anecdote is now tasked with the idea of filling a movie-length story, which it barely manages to do, clocking in at a whopping 75-ish minutes.
Michael Shannon plays an Elvis unlike anyone else has ever done, speaking in a quiet alto, and foregoing any sort of southern accent in favor of some kind of paced, breathy eccentric who movies through the world around him with no grasp on reality. It’s so hypnotically bizarre that Shannon’s portrayal could almost be considered some kind of post modern experiment, and as he muses on the reality of fame, particularly on how Elvis has become “a thing” and not a person, you can almost see the intention here. It’s a hard performance to try and define, as Shannon takes it too seriously to be considered parody (that or he has the driest sense of humor in recorded history), but too blatantly un-Elvis-like to be considered even remotely interpretive. You could almost call it a caricature, but that’s a word best saved for Kevin Spacey’s Richard M. Nixon.
The Nixon in Elvis and Nixon is introduced right away in a wholly unnecessary pre-credits sequence where he snidely confirms to members of his staff that he does, in fact, does know who Elvis Presley is. He doesn’t make another appearance until the film’s third act, and if you’re able to look past the shabby prosthetics, (which is definitely a challenge) Spacey plays the character almost exactly like House of Cards‘ Frank Underwood. The only thing he seems to add is a Nixon-esque inflection with all the nuance of someone who listened to a 45 second YouTube clip of one of his speeches on their way to the set on the first day of filming. Seriously, all that was missing was the occasional breaking the fourth wall so Nixon could reveal his sinister inner monologue to the audience. And you just know Nixon must have had one hell of a sinister inner monologue.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by Nixon’s real-life support staff/Watergate conspirators, Bud Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), who have this idea that a meeting with Elvis would improve Nixon’s image, particularly with the youth of America. They bring the idea to middle management (H.R. Halderman, played by Tate Donovan), who, in typical button down fashion, tells them it’s a terrible idea, and that he refuses sign off on it. They then remind Halderman that people like Elvis, and he immediately changes his mind.
Scenes like this are so frustratingly banal that it manages to both summarize the movie while making you wonder why they’re even there in the first place. There’s no course to conflict resolution besides “oh, come on,” which manages to work every time it’s presented here.
For Elvis’s entourage, they bring in Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), one of The King’s real-life friends who’s spends the movie being dragged along on this haphazard endeavor, with Shannon’s Elvis murmuring on about how he’ll open a studio and make him head of PR. Jerry refuses every one Elvis’s offers, yet still works fervently to get him his meeting with Nixon, despite the fact it’s potentially ruining his relationship with his girlfriend back home (at least, that’s what we’re told). They also shoehorn in a character named Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), another one of Elvis’s pals who’s never really given anything to do other than playing a sleazy hanger-on who uses his name to get girls.
Aside from the chasm-sized rift between how Shannon and Spacey approach their respective performances, the film fails to stay together, most glaringly by not giving itself a main character. Even though Shannon gets the most screen time, there’s some kind of misguided assumption that Jerry will be both the everyman and the fish-out-of-water that will win over the audience, even though his backstory seems to exist solely to pad the run time.
The real disservice here is what they could have done with Elvis, especially with Shannon’s eyes peering out from behind those gold-rimmed sunglasses. There’s never any concrete reasoning behind Elvis’s desire to become a federal agent, and the film electively ignores his real-life descent into drug addiction and overeating was just starting to take hold. There is one moment, when watching Elvis nervously practicing what he’d say to Nixon in a mirror, where he mumbles to himself in a mirror about his still-born twin brother (more historical fact!), and how life can give you the happiest and saddest moment all at the same time.
It’s a real letdown that we aren’t given any time inside his head, which could’ve tipped the scale into delightfully self-aware absurdism with a bit of dramatic weight behind it. Instead, we’re given a film that seems like it was some kind of one-act cosplay experiment that accidentally stumbled into becoming a movie. This Elvis never leaves the building, because it never seems to find it in the first place.
Elvis and Nixon is now playing in theaters everywhere.