Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey star in Elvis & Nixon. (Steve Dietl/Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street)
Elvis & Nixon may at times resemble a “Saturday Night Live” sketch stretched out to feature length, but it has the benefit of being based on an actual historical event that no one would otherwise believe, and that the title characters, perhaps two of the best-known figures in American culture of the past century, are played by two fascinating actors with incredible talents for mimicry. The film may may often be slight, but it it is effortless and light. It is exactly what a comedy of this type should be.
Directed by Liza Johnson, whose previous film was the sturdy independent drama Hateship Loveship with Kristen Wiig and Guy Pearce, Elvis & Nixon recounts the tale of how Elvis Presley decided that he wished to become an undercover federal agent and wanted to meet then-President Nixon, who was several years away from the Watergate scandal but nonetheless as always possessed by personal demons and grudges that he could not contain. Nixon at first dismissed the idea of meeting the rock ’n’ roll icon, but thanks to young staffers who thought that a meeting between the two could help win the youth vote in the upcoming election, the two men decide to meet in the Oval Office.
Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey play Elvis and Nixon, respectively, and the strongest moments in the film occur once the two finally meet because it allows two of Hollywood’s best character actors to interact at last. Spacey may be an acting giant whose legend was secured by multiple Oscars and a few of nearly every acting award imaginable, but like his idol Jack Lemmon, he is a quick wit, a bit of a ham and excels at clever mimicry. It may be at the point where the role of Richard Nixon has reached almost Shakespearean proportions, appropriate considering his role as a tragic villain of American politics, so it makes no sense to compare him to the other actors who have taken on the role, whether classically-trained veterans like Anthony Hopkins in Nixon or even a sitcom stalwart like Dan Hedaya in Dick. All of these successful portrayals add to the mystique around Tricky Dick, just as does every novel take on Hamlet.
Shannon, in contrast, might not be the mimic that Spacey is, but he is capable of bringing an oddball humor to every role he plays, whether Elvis Presley, General Zod or his best role in last year’s 99 Homes. Shannon is more reminiscent of Christopher Walken in his ability to channel a sense that everything is off-kilter, and if Shannon ever reached Walken’s level of fame, one could assume Spacey would do a killer Shannon impression just like he could Walken. This is the quality that makes his interactions with Spacey so priceless. They may be equal talents capable of being quite funny, but their clashing styles add a tension to the film it might otherwise lack.
Much of the film leading up to the meeting between the two title characters deals with the plight of Elvis’ and Nixon’s young assistants, and even if it doesn’t pack the punch of seeing Spacey and Shannon together, the young cast has their moments. Alex Pettyfer, Evan Peters and Colin Hanks are all fine playing the wide-eyed straight men to the outsized leads. A spate of terrible press may have doomed Pettyfer’s career, but whatever the Magic Mike star’s problems off-screen, he’s quite good here as the one person who can handle Elvis.
Elvis & Nixon moves briskly, which remains necessary considering the meeting between the two men was relatively brief, and even despite the kinetic feel of the film, it occasionally feels a bit padded. Still, the meeting between two of American culture’s greatest icons, as played by two of our best working actors, makes the meeting as satisfying as one would expect.
Elvis & Nixon
Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street
In theaters April 22
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