Knowing in advance that the new film “Elvis & Nixon” is only yea-big, and that it’s not intended to carry the usual biopic baggage, its particular charms are disarming nonetheless.
Mainly, it’s fun. It’s fun to watch Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey do their thing without settling for impressions or impersonations. In the grand tradition of first-rate actors actually acting, Shannon and Spacey evoke and explore, rather than replicate. In a wryly comic but unshticky vein, they imagine for us what the two most disparate Americans in American history were like behind closed doors, and why they may have found some common ground, if only fleetingly, as increasingly isolated titans in their respective realms of performance.
The photo and the meeting inspiring director Liza Johnson’s pocket-sized film have become the stuff of unlikely historical legend. On Dec. 21, 1970, Elvis Presley, the king of more than mere jumpsuits, was granted a sit-down with President Richard M. Nixon in the Oval Office. Presley’s semi-legible letters to the president, hand-delivered to the White House security guards, stated his reasons for the meeting: to offer his services to his country as an undercover federal agent “at large,” perhaps to intercept drug deals, or bust up a Black Panthers meeting, or whatever needed doing.
Nixon didn’t leap at the chance. But key aides were tickled by the idea, because — who knows? — it might help him with “the youth vote.” So they met. Presley brought a gift: an antique Colt .45 pistol, handsomely mounted in a display case. They spoke of anti-American sentiments afoot in their nation, and family matters, and at one point Nixon asked for an autograph for “my Julie,” his daughter. The White House photographer captured the famous handshake. And then it was over.
“Elvis & Nixon,” its screenplay written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes, treats the encounter neither dead-seriously nor as an 87-minute punch line. Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville play Presley’s confidants Jerry Schilling (who wrote the book “Me and a Guy Named Elvis”) and so-called Memphis Mafia crony Sonny West, who accompanied the singer to the White House. Colin Hanks skitters around the edges of the meeting as Nixon aide Egil “Bud” Krogh, who wrote his own account of the handshake, “The Day Elvis Met Nixon.”
The script devotes much, but not all, of the movie to the meeting itself. This is where you really see what these actors can do. It’s a play, essentially: a two-character, one-act play, partly based on the historical record but largely invented, and that’s fine with me. Shannon’s Presley gets just enough of the swagger and strut and soft-spoken quality down pat to let you forget the ways he doesn’t resemble Elvis. His stealthy, gently dominating approach allows you to concentrate on what he’s up to here: creating a sweetly delusional megastar’s desire to play cops and robbers.
Prior to his Nixon encounter Shannon shares a fine, funny scene with his longtime Chicago cohort Tracy Letts as the real-life Justice Department narcotics administrator John Finlator. Presley wanted that Drug Enforcement Administration badge to add to his collection, Priscilla Presley wrote in her memoir, so he could “legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.” The movie downplays that motivation in favor of other, more ambiguous things.
Spacey is a canny impressionist and he’s usually asked to toss off a few bits of celebrity mimicry every time he’s on “Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.” He’s coming at this assignment from his own direction, meeting Shannon, who’s coming from the other direction, in the middle. It works; Spacey’s Nixon voice is exact but lightly worn, which allows us to absorb how much of the classically uncomfortable Nixon body language the actor nails.
It’s a small film, perhaps less ambitious or probing (even in a comic vein) than it might’ve been. But it’s a good one, and the actors go to town without turning “Elvis & Nixon” into a chance meeting between an Elvis impersonator and Rich Little.
Elvis & Nixon
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville.
Director: Liza Johnson.
Running time: 1:27.
Rated: R, for some language.