‘Elvis & Nixon’ Tells an Absurd True Story With Depth and Affection

The photograph of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon shaking hands in the Oval Office, the closing credits of Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon inform us, is the most requested photograph in the history of the National Archives. This is unsurprising — it’s a perfect American artifact, both for what’s inside the frame and out of it. Inside is one of the most potent portraits of the American Dream, a poor country boy who created a cultural revolution, made more money than he could spend, and accumulated such undeniable cultural currency that he could show up at the White House unannounced and ask to see the President, and end up doing just that. And it’s also a snapshot of kitsch, of a man whose swiveling hips and devil music once scared the bejesus out of the Establishment, sharing a hearty handclasp with the most corrupt president of our time. The duality of the photo is part of what makes it great; you can just as easily imagine it on your grandmother’s mantle as you can (and this is true) on the T-shirt of a college classmate, proudly sported mere weeks after Nixon’s demise, under big block text reading “WE’RE DEAD.”

So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that this single black and white image is so iconic that it spawned not one, but two speculative motion picture comedies (the first, Elvis Meets Nixon, ran on Showtime back in 1997 with Rick Peters as the King and Shawshank warden Bob Gunton as Tricky Dick). Elvis & Nixon, which premiered last night as the Tribeca Film Festival’s Gala centerpiece, is a free-wheeling good-time Charlie of a movie, detailing the strange circumstances by which Presley (Michael Shannon) and the President (Kevin Spacey) met one December afternoon in 1970.

“We’re at a make-or-break time in this country,” Elvis decides. “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t offer to help?” His plan is simple, sort of: he will offer up his services to the FBI, and/or the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, and/or Nixon himself, figuring he can infiltrate subversive groups (or drug dealers, or bad-news rock bands — the details are never quite clear) by “going undercover” (or maybe by being Elvis — the details are never quite clear). Frankly, more than anything, it all may come down to how badly he wants a federal agent’s badge; he collected them from local police and sheriff’s departments all over the country, and took great pride at displaying them for pretty much anybody who asked, and plenty who didn’t.

Most of this bananas story is told through the eyes of Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), an occasional member of the crew of Presley pals and sycophants known as the Memphis Mafia. Much has been written and dramatized about this crew of good ol’ boys and hangers-on, but Johnson (who also helmed Return and Hateship Loveship) plays it straight, which is the right approach; she’s interested in the camaraderie and affection between these guys, and how he came to rely on them to indulge his whims, no matter how bizarre.

Frankly, if there’s a major complaint to be lobbed at Elvis & Nixon, it’s that it treats the former with quite the pair of kid gloves; aside from one lingering close-up of the King’s impatiently tapping fingers, no mention is made of his own addiction to pills, which is part of what made all his stern-faced concern over the debilitating influence of drug culture so ironic. (It’s the kind of thing you’d think they took out to appease his estate, but there are also no Presley songs in the picture, and their absence is felt.)

There are other quibbles — poor Sky Ferreira’s role as Schilling’s future wife is quite literally phoned in, and when she asks if Jerry misses Elvis more than her, the sense of a missed subtextual opportunity is scorching — but they’re mostly inconsequential. The script, by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes (yes, that Cary Elwes) doesn’t just connect the men via their surface agreements on the media, suspicion of youth, and virulent anti-Communism; via a pair of back-to-back unguarded moments that sound more boilerplate than they play, Elvis & Nixon finds their commonality as men whose crippling insecurities were their ultimate undoing.

One of the picture’s best running gags is the way everyone, from the White House guards all the way up to Nixon himself, ends up humoring “E” as he makes outrageous statements and bizarre requests. But by this point he’d been the most famous man in America for something like half his life, and when he makes proclamations like “I’ve been studying Communist brainwashing techniques for the past ten years,” he’s not doing anything as common as lying. He had simply spent so long living in a universe of his own creation that he was no longer aware of the rules of the real one. So maybe that was one more thing these two men shared.

Few things on this earth are easier to do than a Nixon impression, but Spacey gives it more than that; he draws on our common conception of this man, the pettiness and impatience and squareness, and leans into that baggage. And if the only impression easier than Nixon is Elvis, Shannon makes the admirable choice to forgo the obvious tells; he’s got the look and the attitude, but instead plays Elvis as a character, one filtered (as usual) through his own weirdo lens. In doing so, he gets at the elemental loneliness of this man — at the sadness at his center that explains so much about what made him such a vital performer, what put such vulnerability into those songs, yet what made him so susceptible to the lesser nature of himself and those around him.

Elvis & Nixon‘s Tribeca bow was one of those unfortunate film festival occasions where the cast and crew intro the film but don’t do a Q&A, which was disappointing if only because Shannon can be such a live wire in those situations. But he did contribute one, brief statement beforehand: “I think the thing this movie taught me is, these people are very lovable. So I hope you love ’em too.”

Sounds about right.

Elvis & Nixon screens this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It opens Friday.