True Story: in December 1970, Elvis’s dad and his wife, Priscilla, were mad that he’d spent $100K on guns and Mercedes-Benzes for Christmas gifts, so he threw a fit worthy of a teenage girl, stormed out, and caught the next plane going anywhere. Anywhere turned out to be Washington. Elvis had a large collection of police badges, but his Moby Dick, the one he coveted the most but could never land was a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (he believed having one would mean he could travel to any country with drugs and guns). Unable to convince the bureau, Elvis being Elvis went over their heads and straight to the top – to President Nixon. He showed up at the White House in a purple velvet suit with a huge gold belt buckle and his trademark gold sunglasses, and a white-house-warming gift—a Colt .45 pistol mounted in a display case, which was of course confiscated at the gate. Elvis got his badge though, and asked that the meeting be kept secret. But once he died, the Archives made a fortune selling the official photo, the most-requested Archive photo in the history of the world.
It’s a pretty fucking crazy story, so of course someone had the bright idea to turn it into a movie. Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes share writing credits – yes, that Cary Elwes, who thought he might direct the thing, with Eric Bana as Elvis. That version fell apart but Michael Shannon was soon onboard, maybe not the most obvious choice to play The King, but he waved his magic wand of executive productionship, and convinced Liza Johnson who’d previously directed him in Return to helm the whole damn thing. With Shannon filling the King’s rhinestoned shoes, it just made sense that Kevin Spacey would slide into the President’s shiny loafers.
Although there’s no official transcript of what happened inside the Oval Office, Johnson somehow captures the moment perfectly, both in tone and within the context of the times. It’s a trifle of a film, its only point to get these two towering and seemingly opposite figures in the room together. But with powerhouses like Spacey and Shannon, that’s more than enough. I took a lot of pleasure from the lack of prosthetics or makeup tricks on hand – neither of these men particularly look like the figures they are playing, and neither lower themselves to impressions. The script even pokes fun at how much taller Shannon is than Elvis. The script is generally pretty breezy, a little satirical, and heaps of fun. The director is quick to point out there aren’t any real jokes in the film, but the absurdist tone earns consistent laughs from the audience.
Let’s be real: Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey are legitimately among the most talented working actors today. The film is worth if for their two names above the marquee. The fact that this offers up a bizarre little footnote in American history is just a bonus, and Elvis and Nixon – who is more fascinating or notorious than these two? Spacey and Shannon clearly delight in tackling these roles, and it’s beyond satisfying to watch them engage in a real battle of egos. Within the confines of the Oval Office, Shannon as Elvis has never been a more physical presence on screen, his every movement keeping the president on his toes but always one step behind. Shannon dominates the screen and keeps Nixon chasing after Elvis, and it’s a marvel to watch.
During the Q&A after the screening, director Liza Johnson said she was drawn to the “tonally eccentric” script and wanted the film to match and “embrace the absurdism of the situation. Michael Shannon, describing Elvis as “mysterious”, relied on interviews with Elvis from right around that time to inform his performance, but the film also benefited from Elvis’s good friend (played by Alex Pettyfer in the movie) Jerry Schilling and a White House staffer (portrayed in the movie by Colin Hanks) Egil Krogh to give invaluable insight. Johnson said that “Any day working with Michael Shannon is better than a day not working with Michael Shannon” and that Spacey was a natural fit being an equal in acting, and having previously worked on a Nixon portrayal when he screen-tested for Frost\Nixon.
Bottom line: I enjoyed this very much. There was real spirit, it was a cracking good time, and I found myself making those little smirky-snorty noises, those half laughs that you make unintentionally when you just can’t believe when you’re seeing. It’s unbelievable, but you’d better believe it.
Elvis & Nixon will be out in theatres this Friday, April 22nd – 22 years to the day of Nixon’s death.