Right before the closing credits roll on Elvis & Nixon, the new film from director Liza Johnson, text appears above a photograph of one of music’s most famous figures and the most infamous president in America’s history that says it is the most requested photo at the National Archives. However, the film that tells the story of that picture proves to not live up to the hype.
The titular climatic meeting between the two legendary figures turns out to be wholly anticlimactic. Instead, the real show is the nuanced and controlled performance from Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley. The rest of the film fails to emerge from his shadow.
Shannon is supremely interesting as the King. Refusing to give into easy trappings, like an overzealous twang of Presley’s trademark drawl, he plays him in a subtler way, but certainly no less complex. It is a desire to go above and beyond his expected duties as a musician that brings Presley to his mission to have a sit down with President Nixon (and request a badge to become a “Federal Agent At-Large”), but as Shannon helps illustrate in fantastic monologues in front of mirrors at two different moments in the film, it is more about trying to prove to himself that he is more than the caricature that he has become.
The idea that there is something, or someone, bigger than you and the drive to reach it yourself is the underlying theme of the entire film – whether it be in the subplot of Presley’s reluctant, called upon head of public relations (played by Alex Pettyfer), who wants to strike out on his own from Elvis, or even Nixon, who becomes enraptured in the different kind of fame Presley brings (if for nothing else than to gain approval from his daughter, a dotting Elvis fan).
Unfortunately, no one can quite live up to it the way Shannon does. The subplot of Pettyfer’s character is flat and wholly uninteresting. Kevin Spacey’s performance as Nixon, while commendable in its likeness, is nothing new, and his role is confined to being merely a reactor rather than an integral player.
The film itself even fits into this idea of trying to be something else bigger than it is – in this case, namely a comedy. While the interactions and antics between Shannon’s Presley and Spacey’s Nixon draw some chuckles, as do some of the procedures of Presley entering the White House, the laughs are fewer than you’d expect from the film’s premise. A few more jokes could have made a big difference as the film – as an indirect result of Shannon’s strong, but subdued performance – was lacking some energy.
History is full of interesting stories, and this meeting between Presley and Nixon is surely one of them. Its adaptation to the screen, though – outside of Shannon – fails to live up to the myth behind it.
Elvis & Nixon is now playing at theaters throughout the DC area.
Photo: Courtesy of Obscured Pictures