Elvis & Nixon - This Movie 'King-Rocks
Dir: Liza Johnson
Starring Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Tracy Letts, Tate Donovan
First off, Michael Shannon – he of the incredibly oblong face – looks nothing like Elvis. Yes, they’ve given him some hair and some belts – but Elvis was a great Greek God of a man. Shannon looks like a plastic action figure that got left out in the sun and melted into – well – an incredibly oblong face. But boy does he nail the King. If not visually, then in the voice and – especially – the physicality and the mannerisms. (Elvis as Jedi-prototype anyone?) His Elvis is not he real Elvis but a variation on a theme…as indeed is this whole movie.
Elvis did in fact meet Tricky Dick Nixon in 1971, and did indeed take that famous photo, and did indeed get awarded a special badge as a “federal agent at large” for his troubles. Elvis’s plan – probably not one of his finest – was to work for Nixon’s government undercover, infiltrating everyone from the Haight-Ashbury stoners to the Back Panthers. His logic being, hell, he’d made 30 odd movies (some of them very odd) and therefore was an actor, a master of disguise. It’s not like anyone would peg he was Elvis for chrissakes.
Johnson’s film (co-written by Cary Elwes of all people “as you wish”) takes that bit of coal (from the days before Nixon was recording all his meetings in a heightened paranoid fugue) and turns it into – if not quite a diamond – then certainly a very pleasant shiny thing.
Eschewing any of Elvis’ own tunes (whether through choice or finance) it moves along to a sharp period jazzy score that evokes mid-period Soderbergh as much as anything. And it has he of the oblong jaw. Shannon is delightful in this – for all he doesn’t have the face for Presley, he seems to find what we – hope – may well be the man’s soul. As lost and slightly absurd as the man is in this scenario, Shannon finds pathos and sincerity. This is by no means disrespectful, it’s an attempt to understand. And is remarkably empathetic.
Spacey goes the other way completely and plays Tricky Dick as almost a caricature – which is once again, given the smart tone of Johnson’s movie, completely the right way to go. The two are kept apart for most of the film’s well judged, relatively short and tight running time. But when they do share the Oval, the two – both actors and the icons they depict – come together beautifully.
And they’re aided and abetted by a rather fine supporting team – the formerly anodyne Pettyfer is a revelation as Presley confidante Jerry Schilling, Knoxville is fine, and – playing for the Presidential team – Hanks and Peters are terrific.
Elvis & Nixon is a film that takes a little moment of history and just runs with it. It may not be the full true story, but it really knows how to have fun extrapolation same. A really well acted, sweet little knockabout movie.
Follow us on Twitter @lastwordonearth