On December 21st, 1970, Elvis Presley had a brief meeting with President Richard Nixon. The meeting had been requested by Presley, who wanted Nixon to make him a “Federal Agent-at-Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. As a gesture of goodwill, Nixon agreed to give Presley an official badge. The official photograph of the encounter quickly became the most-requested item in the National Archives.
It's a fun historical anecdote; the kind of story that might provide a particularly entertaining chapter of a documentary or inspire a killer Drunk History segment. Unfortunately, it's not quite substantial enough to sustain a feature-length film. Liza Johnson's Elvis & Nixon is lightweight fun during the meeting between Elvis (Michael Shannon, Take Shelter) and Nixon (Kevin Spacey, House of Cards), but almost everything else feels like needless filler.
Since the actual meeting only takes up twenty-five minutes or so of the running time, the filmmakers elect to spend most of the film's first half detailing Elvis' attempt to set up the meeting with Nixon. Most of the proposals and negotiations are handled by Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer, Beastly), Elvis' friend and business associate. Also tagging along is Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville, The Last Stand), who eagerly uses his friendship with Elvis as a seduction tool. Meanwhile, Nixon's underlings Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks, Dexter) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters, X-Men: Days of Future Past) attempt to persuade their boss to take the meeting (knowing that an official encounter with Nixon could boost the President's popularity with younger voters).
This stretch of the movie has a few mildly amusing moments (Elvis' official meeting with the FBI is a fun demonstration of the way stardom grants a certain weight to objectively ridiculous requests), but the direction has a cheap movie-of-the-week vibe (emphasized by the “haha, isn't this amusing?” score) and the set-up material isn't nearly engaging or entertaining enough to justify the amount of time we spend on it. We don't care about Jerry's relationship problems back home, Sonny's freeloading tendencies or Dwight and Egil's difficult relationship with their boss. The movie is called Elvis & Nixon: c'mon, let's get to it!
We've certainly seen richer work from Spacey and Shannon elsewhere, but their performances are easily the most entertaining thing about the film. The former turns in a respectable (if slightly cartoonish) Nixon impression, lowering his voice a couple of notches and emphasizing the president's world-weary gruffness. It's mostly the sort of SNL-style impersonation you would expect, but Spacey's gift for physical comedy provides some of the film's funniest moments: it's a delight watching the tense, hunched-over Nixon try to act relaxed and “cool” in Elvis' presence.
Shannon's Elvis is less accurate, but more interesting. Shannon may not look or sound much like The King, but he has the relaxed, spaced-out eccentricity of a man who's long been wealthy enough to live outside the realm of reality. He hates hippies, loves guns and has a black belt in karate, but whatever violent inclinations he may have are buried beneath his too-cool-for-the room persona. Elvis continually makes outlandish demands throughout the film, and you get the sense that he's completely unaware of just how outlandish those demands are.
Nothing particularly dramatic happens during the big meeting, but it's still fun to watch these two larger-than-life personalities interact: the meeting begins as a dick-swinging contest, but gradually transforms into a goofy session of mutual admiration. It is worth sitting through all of the padding to get to this stuff? Depends on how much you value your time, I guess. The film as a whole is bland on a technical level, thin on a narrative level and weighed down by a dull supporting cast. It's a shame there isn't really much of a market for 30-minute movies, because there's a much shorter version of this that would be much easier to recommend.
Elvis & Nixon
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 86 minutes
Release Year: 2016