Of all the historic photographs held in the National Archives, you might be surprised that the most requested picture of all time is of Elvis Presley shaking Richard Nixon’s hand in the Oval Office. The King of Rock n Roll and one of the most notorious presidents in American history sure make quite the duo. What’s even stranger is that there are no records to give the reason why these two American icons met in the first place. That brings us to Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon, a pretty absurd comedy that offers a pretty hilarious fictionalized account and possibly reason behind the whole meeting. What I really love about this movie is that it knows what it is, and it also gives leaves some time between the absurdity to offer some interesting themes surrounding celebrity and a person’s real identity.
In 1970, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) still has his status as one of the biggest superstars in the world, even though his impact on the entertainment industry has declined since his earlier days. Meanwhile, President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) has held the presidential office for a little over a year and has his sights set on re-election. After seeing the troubles plaguing the youth of the nation, Elvis decides that he hasn’t been doing enough to make the next generations of Americans safe and prosperous. This line of thinking leads to his decision that it’s time for him to be given a federal badge and be appointed a “federal agent at large.” Armed with his golden pistols and trusty entourage (Jerry Schilling and Johnny Knoxville), Presley makes his way to Washington D.C. for what he believes will be a monumental meeting with the president of the United States.
I’ve explained this movie to some people who haven’t heard of it, and the looks on their faces as I’m talking makes me feel like I have three heads. Elvis & Nixon is, without a doubt, completely absurd. That being said, however, a lot of the events surrounding these two cultural icons are even more absurd than most of the things in this movie. There’s a part of me that believes their secret meeting might have gone a little something like it does in the movie because we all live in such a crazy world anyway. This is where I give a lot of credit to the screenwriters (one of whom happens to be the Dread Pirate Roberts, himself, Cary Elwes). The story that they’ve constructed is very silly, but there is a lot of really snappy dialogue and an understated, yet very present, grounding in reality.
When Elvis & Nixon takes a break from the over the top scenarios and barrage of witty banter, there is time to look at the characters for who they truly are. That, I believe, is the real point to this movie. What we have are two people that couldn’t have been different from each other, and having never met one another have their own judgmental opinions of the other. It’s interesting to see the interaction when they finally do meet and the real people behind what the media has created for them is revealed. There’s one excellent scene in the movie where Elvis says when regular people walk into a room they are recognized for who they are, but when he walks into a room he is only recognized by the preconceived notions and memories that his fame created. This idea of separating a celebrity from their works to see them as a person is a pretty timeless theme and it’s handled surprisingly intelligently in this film.
Besides the premise, the two main actors were the big reason why I was excited about this movie and they did not disappoint. Michael Shannon may not look a lot like Elvis, but he seems to have mastered all of the movements and swagger of the King, and even sounds a lot like him at times. The best part of Shannon’s performance is that he never makes it over the top. He brings a subtlety to the performance that feels real, and it reminds me why he is one of my favorite actors. Speaking of my favorite actors, Kevin Spacey is hilarious as Richard Nixon. He has all the same subtlety as Shannon, and never turns Nixon into a caricature. I was concerned that Spacey would just come across as Frank Underwood from House of Cards, but he really does step away from that president and become Nixon.
What’s great about Elvis & Nixon is that it never tries to come across as more than it is. What this film is is a sometimes over the top satire of a time period, celebrity, and even politics, but done so in the most unpretentious of ways. There’s some real humanity amongst all of the jokes and absurdity, and the actors play their roles with real skill. Elvis & Nixon won’t go down as a classic or even a movie that’s going to be really remembered and discussed, but that’s ok. This is still a really good and fun movie that is well worth anyone’s time.