Writers: Joey Sagal & Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes
Cast: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Johnny Knoxville
Running time: 86mins
What’s the story: In December 1970, Elvis Presley, determined to battle the drug crisis he sees threatening American youth, meets with President Richard Nixon to discuss becoming a self-styled “Federal Agent at Large”.
What’s the verdict: Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon have been portrayed on film often enough to have mini-film festivals dedicated to the two of them. And Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey’s fun and finessed performances make this a great bridging film.
Fun and finessed are also apt words for Liza Johnson’s movie, along with nuanced, smart, surprising and feel-good.
Inspired by the true story of Elvis, and “Head of Public Relations”-cum-general fixer Jerry Schilling, muscling into a meeting with the 37th President of the United States, Elvis & Nixon offers plenty of laughs on the way to the Oval Office, but avoids kitsch pantomiming or tired burger and toilet jokes.
The biggest surprise here may be the nuanced turns Shannon and Spacey deliver playing two over-saturated American icons. Spacey, hunched of shoulder and foul of mouthed, distrustful of everyone around him, plays Nixon as a flawed, insecure outside rather than House of Card’s master manipulator Frank Underwood.
But, POTUS is a supporting character in this epic tale of one-man’s quest to save America. Elvis & Nixon stands or falls dependent on Michael Shannon and while looking very little like The King (Shannon’s eyes are quite unlike anyone else’s) he delivers a performance, subtle and showy, subdued and shooting from the hip that brings the icon to life.
Ably assisted by director Liza Johnson’s deft comic touch in conveying just how awe-inspiring it was for people when Elvis breezed into a room. Or an airport at 4am, or a Drug Enforcement Agency office, or a Harlem café, all included here.
Johnson drops in brief asides about certain Presley demons – at one low moment he instinctively buys a pack of sweets and guzzles them down – but she and the three screenwriters, including actor Cary Elwes, elect not to include the irony that the star was hooked on prescription painkillers when petitioning Nixon to make him a “Federal Agent at Large” (not an officially recognised title).
Alongside the cool 1970s visuals – this would be a good double bill movie with The Nice Guys – Elvis & Nixon is a reminder of a time when politicians didn’t seek celebrity endorsement to endear them to the voters, and the biggest star in the Western World had to instead woo the infamous President.
Add in a great backing band of Colin Hanks and Evan Peters as Nixon’s aides, Pettyfer as the sympathetic Schilling and Johnny Knoxville as Elvis’ bag carrier, plus closing screen credits reminding you Nixon and his guys were pretty crooked and you have an unexpectedly enjoyable toe-tapping treat.