If you were to draw up a list of likely actors to play Elvis, I’d wager that Michael Shannon wouldn’t come particularly high up in the rankings. His acting chops are well proven, but he comes with an enigmatic energy which is so quintessentially Shannon that it would be hard for the viewer to shake that and truly believe they’re watching The King.
This was my worry going into Elvis & Nixon, and this is still how I feel after Elvis & Nixon. But that isn’t to say that there weren’t moments of fun in between. True, I never suspended my disbelief long enough to forget that I was watching General Zod as Elvis – with all the wiry Shannon eccentricities and not much of the “uh, thank you very much” – but that’s not altogether a bad thing.
This is, after all, a weird Elvis story that calls for a weird Elvis. It’s based on true story from 1970, when Mr Elvis Presley appeared outside the White House and asked for a meeting with incumbent President of the United States, Richard Nixon (here played by Kevin Spacey). The resultant meeting lasted for half an hour, with Elvis attempting to convince the PotUS that he could infiltrate hippie culture and assist the government in tackling a growing drug problem.
The latest cinematic recreation of this legendary meeting – which was kept a secret until 1972, and previously made it to the screen in 1997 – is the high point of Elvis & Nixon. Here Spacey gets a chance to play around with Nixon, earning a few big laughs after appearing only fleetingly in the film beforehand. He’s a bristly presence, bouncing off of Shannon’s unpredictable Elvis in a series of strange ways. The pair of powerful men bonding over M&Ms was a personal highlight.
The problem is that this scene is very much the culmination of the film. It takes around an hour to get here, and to pad out this big block of time we get some unconvincing side strands that fail to ignite much interest. Stormbreaker and Magic Mike star Alex Pettyfer plays Elvis’s go-to-guy Jerry, whose personal problems take up an unnecessarily large amount of screen-time whilst failing to be particularly engaging.
Jerry is a bit fed up with Elvis’s zaniness, and really just wants to go home and propose to his girlfriend. When you’ve come to see a film called Elvis & Nixon, it’s tough to care about a character that isn’t particularly fussed about spending time with Elvis or Nixon. It’s equally uninteresting to see Elvis’s other chum (John Knoxville as Sonny West) trying to get off with girls.
Meanwhile, at The White House, Tate Donovan’s H. R. Halderman and Evan Peters’ Dwight Chapin spend the main chunk of the film bumbling around and trying to convince a dismissive Nixon to take the meeting. There’s some comedy here, with Donovan and Peters building up a strong chemistry, but nothing resembling an emotional hook to really pull you in.
Liza Johnson does a fine job as director, and all of the main performers put in a decent shift. So I’d say that the problems must stem from Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes’ script, and the central idea of trying to pad out a half hour meeting into a feature film.
Although it might be the strangest thing about the film on paper, Michael Shannon’s Elvis is really the thing that holds this together. When he’s out in public, he’s got all the charisma you’d expect. But when doors are shut, out comes a more troubled and tough-to-read character. Shannon is never not watchable, regardless of whether he matches up with your personal preconceptions about the King of rock and roll.
This is a film with one great scene and a couple of strong performances, then, which isn’t really enough to maintain high entertainment value over 86 minutes. It lags at points and the side strands are uninspiring, but there are a few really engaging elements buried within Elvis & Nixon. You’ll probably leave wishing you could watch a Shannon-as-Elvis biopic, rather than this one random snapshot that can’t fully sustain a cinematic story.
Also: for an Elvis movie, there’s a real lack of Elvis songs here. Bit odd, that.