Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) requests a top-secret meeting with President Nixon (Kevin Spacey), in the hope of turning kids away from drugs. It really happened.
It’s one of the odder political summits of the 20th century. In December 1970, Elvis Presley, rock god, showed up at the White House to meet President Richard Nixon, dorky crook-in-waiting. There he pledged to assist in America’s war on drugs and requested the secret position of “undercover Federal Agent-At-Large”, which answers the question of what you give the man who has everything. This frothy lark imagines what might have happened when these two minds met.
Michael Shannon's version of Elvis is magnetic, a man with an ordinary mind and an extraordinary presence.
The balance of the film is not quite as the title suggests. It’s more Elvis less Nixon, with the President only dropping into the plot intermittently before the Oval Office encounter. Mostly we follow The King, a man whose immense fame has turned him into a cartoon of his public image. He’s forgotten how to be normal. He’s out of place with everyday people, with his giant gold belts and sunglasses emblazoned with his own initials, as if people won’t know.
Elvis is played, surprisingly, by Michael Shannon. Shannon is not really convincing as the popular image of Elvis. Physically, he looks about as much like him as he does Janis Joplin, and speaks in an uncertain mutter, rather than that ‘thangyaverrmuch’ honk. Yet his version of Elvis is magnetic, a man with an ordinary mind and an extraordinary presence. If Liza Johnson’s direction sometimes feels in need of a bit more swagger and a swifter edit to match the madcap adventure, she does manage to coax performances that make humans out of men remembered as caricatures. Kevin Spacey, as Nixon, pulls up short of the jowel-shaking cliché to show an old man baffled by, but not immune to, celebrity.
The two don’t meet for almost an hour, but it rewards the wait. The comic opportunities are many and hilariously exploited, and there’s smart play on the two different kinds of power on display here. In Nixon there’s a man who is in the highest office in the world, yet has little connection with the public. In Elvis, you have one who causes people to short-circuit with glee wherever he goes, but it’s an empty power. The petty ways in which they try to exert authority over each other are fascinating, like a battle for supremacy simmering over who gets to touch the President’s snack selection. There’s so much to mine when the two are together that you wish the film had got there sooner. A little less action, a little more conversation, please.
There’s not a lot of consequence to this bizarre meeting, or really the film, but as a character study of two men alone at the top, it’s both very funny and quietly astute.