Many people who have seen the famous photo that provides the basis for Elvis and Nixon have marveled at the incongruity of these two iconic figures, seemingly diametrically opposed in nature, shaking hands in the Oval Office. While this premise is implicitly ridiculous, it happened nonetheless, and little factual record of the story behind the image remains to explain its existence. It is this background that the film seeks to mine for comedic fodder. While it succeeds more often than it fails, the end result is a little disappointing given the wealth of undefined material at the script’s disposal and impeccable performances from Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey.
Both actors are in top form here. Despite their physical dissimilarity to the historical personages they’re portraying, each manages to capture the essence of a man who has been previously depicted ad nauseam on film with varying degrees of success. In particular, Shannon’s Elvis bears little resemblance to the caricatures audiences have become accustomed to over the years, instead favoring a bizarre, if humanizing, approach that smooths out some of the incomprehensible strangeness of Presley’s late-period antics, while keeping the details intact. (The topic of impersonation-versus-portrayal is broached briefly when an Elvis impersonator mistakes Shannon for a fellow mimic and criticizes his costume, an exchange that could be read as a metatextual comment on the film itself.) Spacey, too, seems to dig for the emotional core of Nixon’s deep-seated insecurities, delivering a nuanced interpretation while managing to avoid taking the whole thing too seriously. However, the supporting cast is largely wasted. Colin Hanks gives an adequate, if uni-dimensional, portrayal as Nixon aide Egil Krogh, and Johnny Knoxville is likable, yet significantly underutilized, as Memphis Mafia hanger-on Sonny.
As strong as its performances can be, Elvis and Nixon fails its cast when it comes to scripting and direction. Co-written by actor Cary Elwes, the script too often veers into memory lane pandering and consistently confuses its quirky premises with actual jokes. A thoroughly unnecessary and uninteresting subplot, involving Elvis aide Jerry Schilling (Adam Pettyfer) trying to catch a plane to meet his girlfriend’s parents, frames the only character development to speak of in the entirety of the script, yet does nothing to advance the plot. Director Liza Johnson composes shots with all the self-important dramatic flair of a sixth grader playing with dad’s camcorder, and viewers could be forgiven for assuming the editing was handled by exactly such a person. So profuse are the film’s hackneyed visual transitions that I almost expected to see a “star wipe” pop up at some point. (Mercifully, such a nadir of amateurish incompetence is never quite achieved, at least visually. The score, on the other hand … )
Thankfully, the audience’s patience with Elvis and Nixon is rewarded once the two are finally in the Oval Office together, although it takes an hour to get to that payoff. As fun as the third act can be at times, it accomplishes little more than raise the question of whether this story mightn’t have been better served as a short showcasing its central scene, rather than being stretched into a feature that feels overlong even at 86 minutes. Elvis loved guns and drugs, while Nixon seems to have hated damned near everything (except for Dr. Pepper and M&Ms, apparently). Is the fact that these men spent a half hour together in the White House of sufficient interest to warrant an hour-and-a-half of screen time? Certainly not. That said, the film does have a few comedic high points, and watching two of the best actors currently working in American cinema play off each other goes a long way to justifying the existence of this picture. Rated R for some language.