Shortly after 6:30am on the morning of December 21, 1970, Elvis Presley sauntered up to the White House entrance gate with a handwritten letter requesting an audience with President Richard Nixon, offering to assist with the rising drug epidemic by infiltrating the counterculture as an undercover “federal agent at large” – provided that Nixon could supply him with the necessary credentials, of course.
While the preceding paragraph may sound like a setup for a Saturday Night Live sketch, it may surprise you to learn that it’s entirely true, and a photograph taken during the subsequent meeting between the two cultural icons became the most requested document in the history of the National Archives. But what exactly transpired behind the closed doors of the Oval Office? After all, this was before the increasingly paranoid Nixon began recording his meetings, so there’s no official transcript of his encounter with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but Liza Johnson’s Elvis and Nixon imagines what that conversation might have been like.
Despite the fact that he doesn’t even remotely resemble the iconic performer, Michael Shannon delivers an exceptional turn as Presley, a celebrity that has become so insulated from normalcy he can’t understand why an airline ticketing agent would balk at letting him carry a pistol onto a commercial flight. And yet, he’s keenly aware of his superstar status, lamenting to his longtime associate Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) that people see him as an object, “no different than a bottle of Coke,” rather than a person. The premise behind his quest to obtain a federal badge may be absurd, but Shannon’s portrayal captures far more of Presley’s humanity than we’re used to seeing onscreen.
In an equally puzzling bit of casting, Kevin Spacey is tasked with embodying Nixon, capturing the former President’s tics and mannerisms without allowing the performance to become a caricature. Audiences familiar with Spacey’s acclaimed role as a ruthless politician in House of Cards will find little resemblance here as he trades Frank Underwood’s intelligence and cunning for Nixon’s bluster and petulance. He initially refuses to meet with Presley because it conflicts with his regularly scheduled nap, and then tries to impress the rock legend with the collection of artifacts on display in his office – and Spacey’s facial expressions as Presley frequently ignores the protocol established by Nixon’s aides are laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Colin Hanks and Evan Peters are solid as a pair of White House staffers trying to hammer out the logistics of the impromptu meeting, and Johnny Knoxville pops up as another Presley associate in a role that seems to only exist because his real-life counterpart was present for the events depicted in the film. There’s also a yawn-inducing subplot involving Schilling’s desire to get back to Los Angeles in time for an important dinner, but it only serves to draw focus away from the main attraction of Shannon and Spacey. Elvis and Nixon doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s a lot of fun, and we can only hope that the real-life meeting was every bit as preposterous as its cinematic depiction.
A fictionalized account of the real-life meeting between iconic rock singer Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon, as the former seeks to become an undercover federal agent. Every bit as preposterous - and hilarious - as it sounds.