Elvis & Nixon posits the tantalising possibility that the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was not merely a dominant stage presence and sex idol, but also a paranoid and delusional crusader. Yes, we know his mental health towards the end cracked under drugs, but the movie never once presents the correlation between the two. The Elvis Presley we see here has simply seen too many shootings on the TV news, has heard too many stories of kids on the streets jacking up on heroin, and has decided to become a one-man law enforcement army to bring corruption to its knees. I know of another man with such an ambition. He drove a taxi and killed a pimp.
Elvis, of course, didn’t kill anybody, but the Elvis of this movie is surely considering it. Observe the lengths he goes to just to meet Nixon and request a federal badge that will grant him power to go undercover and take down the hippies. He flies from Los Angeles to the capital on an impromptu commercial flight. He books the entire top floor of the Washington Hotel and enters via the janitor’s lift. He drives personally to the gate of The White House to deliver a handwritten letter. The man is on a mission and is perfectly capable of employing his resources to fund his expedition.
And what happens when he finally meets the president? He breaks out karate moves and eats all his M&Ms. It’s pretty easy to declare this Elvis insane. But what elevates Elvis & Nixon beyond a simple character study is the way its oblique casting decisions, made by Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee, work to its advantage. Michael Shannon looks as much like Elvis as Michael Fassbender looks like Steve Jobs, but he works at the character from the inside out — studying speech, posture, gait, attitude — and develops an entirely individual interpretation of one of the most influential men in history. Every jerk and gesture is delivered whimsically but purposefully; you could enjoy this movie just by watching Shannon run away with it.
What of Kevin Spacey as Nixon? He gets the walk right, and the accent, but I’m sure I saw a little of Frank Underwood peeking from behind those eyes. And why shouldn’t he? Frank Underwood is tenacious, ruthless, steadfast. Was Nixon not those things as well? Spacey has built a career playing the bad guy, and indeed, Nixon was a bad guy for a while, but in Elvis & Nixon he plays a hard-nosed cynic wedged into a corner by a raving lunatic, and survives.
It has been noted that the meeting in the oval office was awkward. Elvis & Nixon sprints with this idea by insinuating Elvis’ madness. He disregards protocol. His gift to the president is a loaded pistol. He talks about counterculture and the drug problem as if he’s catching up on the weekend in sports. He hugs where a handshake would suffice, and gleefully demonstrates kicks and blocks to fill up the time. To top it off he wants to be appointed by the FBI as a licensed narc. It’s a wonder Nixon didn’t cuff the crook.
A bunch of supporting roles round out the cast, including Alex Pettyfer as Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ long-time confidant; Colin Hanks and Evan Peters as Egil Krogh and Dwight Chapin, Nixon’s cronies; and Johnny Knoxville as Sonny West, a friend of Elvis’ who stands around and says little. There aren’t many roles given to women; their job in the movie is to squeal, squirm and swoon whenever the King comes within a ten-metre radius. Must’ve been exhausting having two X chromosomes in the ’70s.
This isn’t a biopic about either of the titular men. It is exactly what it is: a snapshot of a very precise moment in their lives, lost in the sands of time. You will not learn of their biography. Instead you will get a feel of their personalities as they come clashing together in a small room in the West Wing of The White House. Yes, Elvis appears to be a little crazy, and Nixon skeptical. But perhaps it was this incredulous juxtaposition that brought them together and, if nothing else, gave us a memorable photograph, and the inspiration for this film.