In 2011, Vanity Fair broke a real-life story about Marlon Brando, Michael Jackson, and Liz Taylor hopping into a car for a road trip to Ohio to escape NYC during the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Yes, that really happened. Early this year, it was announced that this beyond bizarre story will be adapted as a made-for-British-TV movie, which is about the most perfect next logical step for that odd pop culture anecdote I could imagine & something I can’t wait to see. In the meantime, while we’re impatiently counting the hours until the Brando-Jackson-Taylor road trip comedy of our dreams materializes, we have a much more well-known odd pop culture anecdote to tide us over: Elvis & Nixon.
Written around the photo op/publicity stunt in 1970 when Elvis Presley visited the White House & was awarded an official title as a federal narcotics agent, Elvis & Nixon is a low-energy camp delight. Taking great pleasure in its own historical inaccuracies & caricaturist liberties, the film finds easy camp value in casting Michael Shannon as Elvis & Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon and propping the mismatched pair up in a room (the Oval Office, of all rooms) merely so it can stew in its own unlikelihood. The result isn’t anything mind-blowing or revolutionary, but it is an offbeat pleasure to behold.
A large part of what makes Elvis & Nixon an interesting exercise is its ridiculous casting. Despite wide cultural success on a much-watched Netflix drama, Kevin Spacey is in a weird moment of his career right now. His biggest silver screen role of 2016 is a business man who gets magically transformed into a cat so he can learn a life lesson, so his participation in this other camp delight kind of makes sense. Spacey’s Nixon impersonation is, predictably, serviceable and, although neither actor look any more like their respective historical figures than the stars of Bubba Ho-Tep, you can occasionally forget that you’re looking at a famous actor at certain moments in his performance. Michael Shannon, on the other hand, is still in the art film cycle of his career, having just starred in the brilliant sci-fi chase thriller Midnight Special, so it was amusing to see him pop up in something so goofy in a full-length role instead of a one-off cameo gag. Shannon’s Elvis is a singularly strange performance, maybe his weirdest outlier role since he played Kim Fowley in the Runaways movie.Thankfully, Elvis & Nixon knows exactly how interesting that performance is, allowing Shannon to dominate a majority of the screen time, relegating Spacey’s Nixon to a curiously small, supporting role despite what the title suggests.
Shannon plays Elvis with the weird, soft-spoken energy of a late-in-life Michael Jackson, portraying The King as an out-of-touch loner with unlimited cult of personality power. Elvis is acutely aware of how strange & eccentric he appears, intentionally leaving himself “buried under gold, jewels, and money” so that he becomes “an object” instead of a person, lost inside his own icon status & blending in with his own impersonators. Still, he’s dead serious about joining the War on Drugs and doesn’t care at all how many people he has to confuse or inconvenience to achieve that goal. Shannon’s Elvis is oddly delicate & childlike, but also a powerful force that won’t take “No.” for an answer, a perfect foil for Spacey’s much more realistic, but equally stubborn Nixon.
Elvis & Nixon finds its best possible self in its laidback, weirdly relaxed vibe. Instead of pushing for big, unlikely moments between The President & The King, the film instead finds lowkey fascination in a past-his-prime rock ‘n roller living out a fish-out-of-water comedy in a political atmosphere he knows nothing about. Why a presumably pilled-out millionaire would suddenly become so concerned about the rise of popularity of Communist leanings among hippies and attempt to stop the ways “drug culture is ruining our youth” is anybody’s guess, an avenue of inquiry the film’s barely interested in exploring. Elvis’s plan to win the war between “The Establishment” & “The Youth” is even more bizarre & seemingly half-baked once you realize he believes he can go “undercover” as a federal agent thanks to his experience in costume & disguise from his roles in dozens of feature films, despite having one of the most famous faces on the planet. How much of Elvis’s dedication to pro-Establishment/ant-drug sentiments is true to life is surely up for debate, but the movie is clearly just having fun with the absurdity of the idea, not at all dedicated to pursuing historical integrity.
Spacey’s Nixon is just one player among many (including a strange supporting cast of Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, and indie popstar Sky Ferreira) who are here to gawk at the bizarre presence of The King, with his weird little laugh, his outburst of amateur karate, and his large stockpile of firearms. Shannon plays the lowkey humor of the situation beautifully and Elvis & Nixon’s best moments are in watching the cultural icon perform simple tasks like watching television, eating a donut, and waving politely. The climactic meeting with Nixon promised in the title (and in the infamous photograph that inspired the film) is just icing on the highly unlikely, yet oddly enjoyable cake. Michael Shannon’s soft-spoken Elvis is the magic in the batter.