Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 7, 2016)
Back in 1970, Elvis Presley visited President Richard Nixon at the White House, an event that spawned one of the most iconic photos of the 20th century. With 2016’s Elvis and Nixon, we get a cinematic look at this famous meeting.
Upset about the degradation he sees in American culture, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) decides he needs to discuss his concerns with President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey). Elvis and his crew fly to DC where he delivers a six-page handwritten note to the White House. This gets him into the building and he meets with Nixon.
That doesn’t seem like much of a set-up for a movie, does it? The question about Elvis becomes how much drama and entertainment the filmmakers can wring out of an event that lasted only a few minutes – and also one about which little historical record exists.
Despite the threadbare framework, Elvis provides a pretty entertaining fable. To its credit, the film doesn’t try to make a statement – instead, it just wants to have a little fun.
Not that Elvis opts for the wacky, broadly comedic route I feared it might take. While the movie keeps things loose, it doesn’t turn into farce or parody.
Instead, Elvis aspires to give us breezy entertainment. It attempts a little psychological depth for its characters, but these stay minor, as the film mostly sticks with a light approach. This works really well, as the movie keeps us involved through its entire running time.
Given how well-known – and oft-parodied – Presley and Nixon are, Shannon and Spacey found themselves in tough spots. Of the two, Shannon more actively avoids "impersonator” territory.
At first, this seems like a bit of a mistake. Shannon doesn’t look much like Elvis, and his natural demeanor threatens to sabotage the King’s casual charm. Shannon suffers from “Resting Psycho Face”, and this lends Presley an oddly dark feel that doesn’t connect to my impression of the man.
In addition, Shannon doesn’t really attempt to sound like Presley. He speaks in a noticeably higher register than Elvis did, and this seems off-putting at first. It takes a few minutes to accept Shannon’s approach.
However, before long, I could ignore the superficial differences between Shannon and Presley, and from there I could accept – and embrace – his performance. I appreciate that Shannon doesn’t give us a cartoon take on the King, and this allows him to find the humanity involved.
Spacey opts for more of a “standard Nixon”, but he avoids caricature. He gets less time on-screen – and the character receives less depth – but Spacey manages to do well in the part. He gives the movie a nice shot in the arm.
All of this adds up to a pretty delightful experience. A sprightly affair, Elvis and Nixon delivers a peppy, fun tale that knows better than to overstay its welcome. Expect a highly enjoyable piece of light comedy.