Directed by Liza Johnson
Written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes
Starring: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Evan Peters, and Colin Hanks
“Elvis & Nixon” is a fascinating examination of the events behind the iconic photograph – the most requested in the national archive – of President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. The meeting between the President and the King had taken place before Nixon began recording all of the meetings in the Oval Office and all of his phone calls, unlike a lot of Nixon’s other meetings, no transcript exists of the meeting. This movie is an interesting interpretation of what might have happened during this meeting.
What makes this film work is the performances of the two leads, Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey as Elvis and Nixon respectively. Both actors deliver spot-on interpretations of the men they are portraying. Interpretation is much different than an impression. When depicting figures like Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley, it is so easy to fall into the impression of either of the two men. With an impression, you end up with the “Saturday Night Live” sketch version of the story. Shannon and Spacey manage to inhabit these men as characters.
Shannon gives an Oscar-caliber performance – he rarely gives anything less – as Elvis, and he perfectly captures where Elvis was at this point in his life. You could tell that he was maybe more than a little not right in the head, not only through his performance but through the way the people would react when Elvis told them what he was doing in Washington, D.C. Even though Shannon bears no physical rebalance to the King of Rock and Roll, he makes you believe that he is Elvis Presley.
Spacey delivers a subtle performance compared to Shannon, but it is nonetheless fantastic. Spacey does get less screen time than Shannon does, a majority of Spacey’s screen time is during the meeting between Presley and Nixon. Spacey uses every second of his more limited screen time effectively. He is magnetic and captivating as Nixon.
Liza Johnson, the director of the movie, directs the movie well. The film looks and sounds and feels like the early 1970’s. The movie moves along at a quick pace, and it is surprisingly humorous. That is a combination effort of Johnson and the writers of the movie: Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes – yes it is that Cary Elwes, who played Westley in “The Princess Bride.” When you stop to think about the movie being humor heavy should not be a surprise, Elvis wanting to be an undercover agent in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs – the precursor to the DEA – is a too ridiculous to be true. It is a true story; you cannot make this stuff up.