The King of Rock and Roll requests an audience with the President of the United States in “Elvis & Nixon,” and the resulting interaction could hardly be weirder had little green men turned up on the North Lawn asking, “Take us to your leader.” While its sense of humor takes some gettin’ used to, the sheer spaciness of Liza Johnson’s stranger-than-fiction political satire ultimately proves its greatest asset, simultaneously demystifying two 20th-century icons — one the most powerful, the other the most popular man in the Western world at the time — in a loony Amazon Studios release a little too eccentric to reach the audience it fully deserves.
Normally, the fact that Michael Shannon bears almost no resemblance to Elvis Presley might be an obstacle to a film that pokes fun at the pop star’s desire to be deputized as a “federal agent-at-large” for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs — a non-existent post in which the King imagined himself going undercover to combat America’s rising drug problem in his spare time (or, as Priscilla Presley’s memoir later revealed, passing freely across borders with as much narcotics as he pleased).
In those days, Elvis was almost distractingly pretty — a far cry from Shannon’s lurching scarecrow look. But then, Kevin Spacey could hardly be considered a dead-ringer for Richard Nixon either, and yet, both actors manage to delve past superficial impersonation and deliver a fresh understanding of what makes these men tick.
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Still, their performances take some getting used to, and some audiences may never get past the impression that they’re watching a clownishly miscast caricature of the blind date immortalized by the National Archives’ most requested image, in which D.C. and Las Vegas collide as a conservatively dressed Nixon shakes hands with Elvis, outfitted as if ready to go on-stage in high-collared shirt, black Cossack suit and jumbo-sized gold belt buckle.
Embracing that encounter as one of the Twilight Zoniest moments ever documented at the White House, screenwriters Joey and then-wife Hanala Sagal set out to fill in the gaps between what others have reported of the incident, drawing on accounts from eye witnesses on both sides (which co-writer Cary Elwes later embellished). That explains why the story is told from the exasperated p.o.v. of Elvis’ longtime friends Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), as well as Nixon’s own yes men, Bud Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters).
A few days before Christmas in 1970, Elvis is sitting at home, watching television (in his sunglasses) and worrying about the world’s problems. On a whim, he decides to fly out to Washington, scribbling a barely-legible note to Nixon on American Airlines stationery, which he later hand-delivered to White House security. After four pages of incoherent rambling, it ended, “I would love to meet you just to say hello if you’re not too busy.”
Needless to say, Nixon was busy, although the version of the president Spacey portrays is mostly depicted hovering around his mahogany desk like a bored pterodactyl looking for things to do. While Nixon considers meeting a long-haired entertainer like Elvis far beneath him, his advisers see the PR advantage in making the incorrigibly square commander in chief look hip in voters’ eyes — or, as Nixon later tells eldest daughter Julie, “Perhaps your dad is cooler than you’d like to think.”
But whatever mojo Elvis had wasn’t the sort that rubbed off on politicians. He walks into a room, and women lose their wits — a sort of real-world Jedi trick that serves him well when, say, carrying firearms on an airplane or breezing into federal law enforcement agencies. One particularly hilarious bit finds chronic scene-larcenist Tracy Letts (“Indignation,” “The Big Short”) as a Washington drug buster humoring Elvis simply because his secretaries want to make a good impression.
The sheer absurdity of that moment encapsulates what makes “Elvis & Nixon” so effective — assuming you can get on its wavelength: Instead of showing deference to these two 20th-century icons, Johnson essentially treats them as buffoons (nothing like Spacey’s shrewd “House of Cards” character), and while their cluelessness is easy enough for us to recognize, each wields such power that their exasperated underlings have no choice but to play along. In Schilling’s case, the poor guy risks missing the chance to meet his future in-laws back in Los Angeles, just to humor Elvis’ desire to add another tin star to his growing badge collection.
After nearly an hour of frantic back-and-forth negotiations, including a shady D.C. parking-lot meeting baldly intended as a wink to “All the President’s Men’s” Deep Throat scene, “Elvis & Nixon” finally brings its eponymous couple together. Though the presidential aides have expressly advised him not to touch Nixon’s candy dish or personal Dr. Pepper bottle, Elvis breezes into the Oval Office, rudely opting not to remove his oversized aviator glasses, before plopping down on the couch and helping himself to all the President’s M&M’s.
Whether Elvis’ actions are a deliberate provocation or not, it’s amusing to watch how much control Nixon is willing to cede to this celebrity, if only to get his daughter an autograph — his humiliation deliciously underscored when Elvis offers Bud a signature as well. While not exactly star-struck, Nixon is intrigued by Elvis’ earnestness, which Shannon plays without a note of irony.
Ideally, by this point in film, we’ve forgotten how little either he or Spacey resembles their characters, reveling in the sheer volume of unscripted humor both actors manage to add via body language alone — as when Nixon swells when presenting a prized moon rock given to him by Buzz Aldrin, instantly deflating when Elvis responds, “No, that’s cool, man. Buzz sent me one, too.” He may not have manners, but the King clearly has control of the situation, and though it wasn’t so common to have entertainers grace the White House, a mere decade later, a former B-movie actor would be sitting in Nixon’s chair.
Johnson isn’t the sort of director to let style get in the way, occasionally sacrificing elegance and sheer shot-to-shot continuity in order to privilege her actors’ best takes. But she understands comic timing, as well as the broader-view absurdity the material demands, and though her protagonists both take one another incredibly seriously, it will be hard for anyone who sees “Elvis & Nixon” to show such figures the same degree of respect going forward.