I had a snarky suspicion that something was just too perfect about the new film Elvis & Nixon when I discovered it was playing at my local Cinemark. I had no idea what it was about and was frankly delighted to finally see a film without being spoiled by the everpresent World Wide Web. So it came as a surprise to see what should have been an odd little gem being played at a major theater chain.
And better yet, the film even boasted uber odd actor Michael Shannon as I shit you not Elvis. It’s an inspired casting decision, one that has hints of greatness and reflection of Elvis’s hidden nature. Shannon plays Elvis as quiet and mumbling, and sounds nothing like the real man, a trait that is made into a joke in the film. Sitting in a airport terminal, an Elvis impersonator compliments the real Elvis in how close he is. But the Elvis impersonator claims he’s the best, and sings a rendition of one of his songs. And sure enough, the impersonator sounds and looks more like the impersonator than Shannon’s soulful interpretation. It’s a cognitive dissonance that reveals a hidden aspect of Elvis’s larger than life persona. He’s just an insecure man trying to find fulfillment in getting a badge from the federal government. It’s an interesting but well explored beat–something akin to the other king Michael Jackson.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Kevin Spacey, who goes broad with perfectly crafted mannerisms that paint a photo-accurate portrait of Richard Nixon. He nails the facial tics and grumbling voice and hunched back and swinging arms, and you get a real sense of how much fun the role must have been for him. Imagine how hilariously the reveal is when we first see Nixon turn around in his chair and face the audience. I had no idea Spacey was in this, but was thrilled by his spot on caricature. Nixon was such a out of this world persona that it’s hard to divorce accuracy from caricature. Spacey toes a fine line, edging on verisimilitude while simultaneously nodding his cap to the audience.
The strength of these performances sound like the making of a wonderful film, and to a lesser extent they do, but it’s all just surface intrusions, a dog and pony show that will pass the multiple choice test but fail the written exam.
The story is an imagining of the time when Elvis had a meeting with Nixon. The opening text informs us that Nixon had been recording interviews in his office during the early the 70s, and that Elvis had become a has been. These two would cross paths in a well publicized interview at the White House, but that no recording existed of Elvis’s meeting with the nefarious leader of the free world. It’s a classic what-if? that is ripe for the wandering imagination.
Except the filmmakers have little to imagine. Liza Johnson provides equal footed direction, but unfortunately crafts the narrative in episodic scenes of dialogue. Elvis meets a new group of people then walks away to music number. Some of these moments are funny. A secretary at The Federal Bureau of Narcotics becomes stricken with disbelief that Elvis has shown up in person in order to arrange a meeting with J. Edgar Hoover (because, as Elvis gently reminds her, the FBI oversees the narcotics division). It’s a cute scene played with a firm tongue-in-cheek, and Shannon is so weird and uncomfortable and endearing in these moments that you really want to root for this small film to succeed.
But for all these grin inducing moments, there’s an equal number of grown inducing sighs. One glaring example are an emotional subplot involving Elvis’s #2 man interspersed between these snippets of encounters which is essentially filler tracks. We see the dude on the phone and stressing out over getting back to LA to meet with his girlfriend’s dad, and after two exact shots, becomes grating. It’s such a shallow attempt at emotional depth, but lands with a shrug. Why should we care?
It’s the same problem that permeates throughout the rest of the film. Slivers of pathos are thrown in the mix in a subtle but woefully undercooked attempt at getting us to empathize with Elvis’s own identity crisis. Elvis quietly confides in said #2 man that the Elvis he sees in the mirror isn’t the Elvis he was as a child. It’s a delicate moment, almost a whisper, and for a second I started to feel a beating heart pulsating underneath this facade of nostalgia and oddity. But like a shout in a crowded stadium, it disperses never to materialize into something meaningful.
Like I mentioned, casting Michael Shannon is a perfect choice to infuse this dynamic into the film, and while it sounds great on paper, feels like a pathetic attempt at creating characterization where there is none. Contrast this with the charming Nixon and you get a real sense of lowered expectations. So much of the film is a whatcouldhavebeen?.
The culmination of the film is the inevitable meeting between both paranoid and larger than life celebrities, and wouldn’t you know it, Nixon kind of finds a kindred spirit in him. The actual meeting takes up a good chunk of time, at least 10 minutes, and plays nicely as a revealing of two–though wildly different on the surface–kindred conservative souls. Elvis mentions his displeasure of The Beatles and desire to help fight drug addiction among the American public by going undercover as a “federal agent”. Nixon at first is bewildered, agreeing to the meeting only to get an autograph for his daughter, but ends up befriending the legend and granting him his ever precious badge.
And before you know it, both men are smiling and posing for the most requested photo from the National Archives and Records Administration. It’s such a cute moment that it will send you leaving the theaters with smiles and adoration, and will undoubtedly be a winner with the older folks. But don’t let these pleasantries fool you. This is a hollow film, a perfect sweet nothing that would have been a staple of Elvis’s own hollow repertoire. I was bored, a little delighted, but ultimately drunk off what was cheap champagne, with a lingering buzz just faintly reminding me that Shannon was on to something great with this miss.