No doubt you’ve seen the famous 1970 photo of President Richard M. Nixon and Elvis Presley shaking hands in the Oval Office, which was just about as incongruous a coupling of rock ‘n’ roll and the Establishment as anyone could have imagined at the time. What on earth did they have to talk about? Who arranged the meeting? And why?
Some of the answers to those questions are known, and the ones that aren’t, well, “Elvis & Nixon” — a jaunty, silly movie about a trivial event — makes ’em up, then has Kevin Spacey (Nixon) and Michael Shannon (Elvis) act them out. The casting alone is a delight. Were you even aware that you needed Michael Shannon’s Elvis impersonation in your life? Most likely not, and yet once you see it, you cannot live without it.
Breezily directed by Liza Johnson from a slight screenplay by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes (yes, that Cary Elwes), the film has no pretenses about providing insight into either man’s character, much less their brief, off-the-record encounter. (Nixon hadn’t installed his infamous recording system yet.) Look no further than each man’s introduction in the film: Nixon says something vulgar (“Who the f*** set this up?”), and Elvis shoots out a TV screen. Clearly we’re dealing with the stereotyped versions of these notable men, not three-dimensional ones. Which is fine. We can get our penetrating biographies elsewhere, thank you.
As portrayed here, Elvis is a lovable, irresponsible kook who must be supervised at all times lest he get into mischief. He thinks nothing of showing up at the airport carrying several guns, for example, because he’s been given honorary law-enforcement badges by the sheriffs of various podunk municipalities. Does he genuinely think these gestures give him actual rights and privileges? Who knows? (In the movie, yes, he seems to.) Either way, he’s a sincere patriot who wants to help America fight the crime, drugs, and riots that have marked the last few tumultuous years.
And so it is that on Dec. 21, 1970, he and his friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) show up at the White House with a letter that Elvis has hand-written for the president. In this letter (which you can read at the National Archives https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/nixon-met-elvis/main.php ), Elvis offers his services as an undercover narcotics officer, asking Nixon to make him a Federal Agent-at-Large. He’d like to meet personally to discuss it. Could the most popular entertainer in the world be an effective narc? Elvis points out that he’s been in 31 movies. “That makes me an expert on costume and disguise,” he says.
Two of Nixon’s staffers, Bud Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), think a meeting with Elvis could be just the photo op the president needs to boost his popularity among young people and in the South. Nixon adopts his usual attitude of paranoid skepticism, but he gets a pleading phone call from his daughter, Julie, thanks to some meddling from Krogh and Chapin.
Did Julie Nixon really play a part in this? Seems unlikely. Yet it’s such an appealing, sitcom-y moment — the notoriously gruff leader of the free world being begged to get a rock star’s autograph for his baby girl — that we have no problem accepting it as entertainment, if not as truth. And when it comes time for the actual meeting (preceded by each man’s staff giving careful instructions to the other about the proper protocols to follow), it’s immensely satisfying and deeply funny: two men who are used to being the center of the universe engaging with someone from completely beyond their frame of reference. Nixon is envious of Elvis’ youth and beauty, and there’s some oneupmanship over the size of their houses, but they soon find common ground: they’re both dangerously paranoid.
The down-to-earth figure in the whole goofy affair is Elvis’ pal Jerry. (Johnny Knoxville also appears as Sonny, another of Elvis’ caretakers, but he doesn’t do much.) Jerry loves his friend and is willing to endure all manner of nonsense in his service — but he also has a girlfriend to get back to, a life to live. Pettyfer and Hanks have a nice scene where Jerry and Krogh commiserate on what it’s like to work for a powerful boss who doesn’t have a lot of regard for his underlings’ personal lives.
Spacey is amusing as Nixon, doing a hunchbacked, gorilla-like impersonation that’s slightly better than you’d get in a comedy sketch. Shannon’s Elvis is even better: not a great impersonation but a great character, a capricious, mega-rich grown-up kid without a malicious bone in his body who says and does whatever pops into his head. Again, I have no idea whether the real King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was as nutty as he’s portrayed here. All I know is that if Michael Shannon were to star in a spin-off TV show called “Undercover Elvis,” where Federal Agent-At-Large Elvis Presley goes around the country posing as a narc, I would watch it.
B+ (1 hr., 26 min.; )