When future Watergate conspirator Egil Krogh is the most sympathetic character in a movie about the legendary 1970 meeting between then President Richard Nixon and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll Elvis Presley, you have a movie that’s dead on arrival. That’s the case with Elvis & Nixon. Neither Michael Shannon (Elvis) nor Kevin Spacey (Nixon)—two of the greatest actors of the present era—emotionally connect with their characters to give more than a shallow impression (and not much of one at than in Shannon’s case) of the men they portray. Not that they have much to work with in this sorry comedy’s lame, lazy script.
The photograph memorializing the Yuletide get together between the leader of the free world and the pioneering rock star is an enduring image, but there is no record of the meeting that Presley asked for hoping to join the war against drugs as a specially appointed law enforcement officer, leaving filmmakers free to fill in the blanks. Elvis & Nixon is not the first time the tales been told. Allan Arkush (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) made Elvis Meets Nixon for Showtime in 1997, framing the story as a hybrid between mockumentary and straight narrative with Elvis in the throes of a kind midlife crisis that sends him on a solo excursion to Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip before jetting off to Washington and his date with a hilariously out-of-touch Nixon. The new version spends a lot more time in that meeting with Elvis constantly breaking protocol and yet somehow winning over an initially hostile Nixon.
Spacey nails Nixon’s voice and mannerisms but still comes across as little more than a caricature. (In contrast, watch Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, or even Dan Hedaya in Dick.) But the big disappointment is Shannon who plays a character named Elvis Presley who does not remotely resemble the man named Elvis Presley. The gaunt actor would be a stretch in any case, but Shannon also can’t replicate the voice or the physical grace and he crucially never conveys the man’s charisma and he just plain looks uncomfortable in Presley garish wardrobe.
The most interesting aspect of Elvis & Nixon is the way both men are portrayed in relation to their handlers. Part of the Memphis Mafia, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and Sonny (Johnny Knoxville, in a sea of bad wigs, he’s stuck with the worst) have their hands full with man-child Elvis, spoiled, impetus, demanding their loyalty and attention to the detriment of their own lives. (In one subplot, Schilling is desperate to get back to Los Angeles in time to meet his girlfriend’s parents.) Nixon aides Krogh (the always reliable Colin Hanks, playing the character as a blend of political opportunist and fanboy) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) similarly manage their boss, here portrayed as a crank more interested in napping than affairs of state. As powerful as they are, both Elvis and Nixon are infants in need of constant minding. Director Liza Johnson and the film’s three screenwriters only skate the surface of these relationships, another missed opportunity.
Maybe the lesson in all this if you don’t have any real affection or feel for the story you’re trying to tell, perhaps it’s not a story you ought to be telling. There is little heart in Elvis & Nixon, and what little there is curiously belongs to Egil Krogh. But that’s all due to Hanks, the one actor who finds a way to transcend the thin material. It might be possible to make a funny, entertaining movie out of the president and Presley’s short conference (Elvis Meets Nixon comes close), but Elvis & Nixon isn’t it.—Pam Grady