REVIEW: “Elvis & Nixon” fascinating, funny, and entertaining

Though Michael Shannon never quite convinces as “The King,” Elvis & Nixon works as a quirky and ultimately fascinating study of two powerful and complicated personalities. It’s well-written and at times very funny, which is all the more impressive considering neither of the two stellar performers in the lead roles allow their performances to sink into the well-worn caricatures with which Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon are forever associated with.

  • Shannon delivers a memorable and earnest depiction, though he never physically disappears into the character
  • Kevin Spacey simply nails the essence and presence of Nixon
  • Meticulously detailed production design brings believability to the absurdity of the story

What’s it about?

Set on a December day in 1970, the film follows Elvis as he endeavors to convince the President of the United States to in effect deputize him so that he can help turn the tide against the ills he sees plaguing America. He hopes Nixon (played by Kevin Spacey) will grant him “Federal Agent-at-large” status, so that he can use his celebrity status as the ultimate cover in order to infiltrate and bring down communists, drug dealers, and other nefarious agents of counterculture.

To help make the meeting happen and keep it a secret from those in his usual inner circle who might try to stop him, Elvis turns to longtime friend and associate Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer, Magic Mike). Though he sees clearly the absurdity of what his friend is proposing, he also sees just how serious Presley is about it, and that’s enough for him to temporarily put his own life on hold in order to help the King one last time.

Of course, the powers that be in the White House see that same absurdity, as well. But Nixon aide Bud Krogh (Colin Hanks, “Life in Pieces”) and special assistant to the President Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters, “American Horror Story”, X-Men: Days of Future Past) also see an opportunity to impress voters Nixon has never effectively reached. After all, who didn’t love Elvis in 1970’s America?

Thus the stage is set for one of the most famous and improbable White House photo ops of all time. It’s a meeting of two men whose reputations and public personas outwardly grant the impression that they couldn’t possibly get along. That seeming incompatibility helps make what happens once Elvis and Nixon get to talking in the Oval Office all the more surprising and entertaining.

Elvis & Nixon one-sheet

The character, if not the look, of “The King”

Though Shannon the actor never fully disappears into Elvis the character in Elvis & Nixon, he does very fine work in terms of bringing to life Presley’s complicated and at times mercurial personality. Shannon’s Elvis is a thoughtful, sometimes troubled man who is aware of and disheartened by how people see him as a product or an icon rather than a person.

At the same time, however, for all his insight into how the outside world perceives him, this Elvis, who watches world events unfold from Graceland’s lavishly appointed “TV Room,” is also possessed of the narcissism truly befitting a king. Shannon delivers an Elvis who sees no absurdity whatsoever in his pursuit of a federal badge, and likewise sees no logical reason why the President and the U.S. government might refuse him. It all makes perfect sense to him – why shouldn’t it make sense to anyone else?

Spacey simply superb

In comparison, Spacey gets far less screen time in Elvis & Nixon – reportedly, he completed shooting his scenes in a week. But the screen time he does get he makes the most of, bringing to life a Nixon that should at once be familiar to audiences, at least in the broad strokes.

Spacey’s Nixon is foul-mouthed, ossified in terms of his beliefs regarding youth culture and the media, and possessed of a startling insecurity in terms of his physical looks and presence. He firmly of the belief that he doesn’t get enough credit for all he has accomplished without the good looks and fortunes of birth afforded to others. That chip on his hunched shoulders informs his every word and awkward gesture, the perfect contrast to Elvis’s smooth and charismatic manner. As he usually does in just about everything, even those “You’re Type E” E-Trade commercials, Spacey makes all that nuance look easy.

Supporting cast, production pitch perfect

Though his character, fittingly, goes without mention in the film’s title, Alex Pettyfer’s portrayal of Jerry Schilling serves as an effective counterpoint to Shannon’s Elvis as much as Spacey’s Nixon does. Pettyfer delivers an understated yet consistently sympathetic depiction of Schilling, whose loyalty and affection for his childhood friend allowed him a unique perspective on the man behind the sunglasses, scarves and capes, to not lose sight of that man in spite of the legend that others came to accept as the “real” Elvis.

Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, and Johnny Knoxville round out the cast of Elvis & Nixon, and each have opportunities to inject additional humor into the film thanks to the roles their characters played in the events of that fateful day at the White House. The production itself impresses, as well – Elvis aficionados should especially be pleased at the attention to detail both in the replica costumes and the Graceland TV Room, a visual treat featured in one of the film’s first scenes.

Worth seeing?

If it’s available to see in your area, Elvis & Nixon is absolutely worth 87 minutes of your time and investment at the box office. It’s smart, funny, and lovingly crafted by a talented cast and director (Liza Johnson, Return, Hateship Loveship) who take a pop culture footnote in American history and turn it into a compelling film.

Elvis & Nixon

Starring Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts, Tate Donovan, and Ashley Benson. Directed by Liza Johnson.
Running Time: 87 minutes
Rated R for some language.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.