With their second release following Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq,” Amazon Studios takes another strong step into the theatrical game with “Elvis & Nixon,” a seriously funny reimagining of the secretive 1970 meeting between The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Tricky Dick Nixon.
Featuring a mutton chopped and karate chopping Michael Shannon (“Midnight Special,” “99 Homes”) as Elvis and a perfectly awkward Kevin Spacey as the disgraced President, this slight but amusing look behind the scenes of their wonderfully weird meeting may not offer much insight, but still manages to be extremely entertaining throughout its abbreviated running time. With an ace screenplay that hilariously and plausibly imagines the circumstances of their unlikely encounter while also nicely incorporating well-known attributes of the titular characters, this Liza Johnson-directed diversion should sit well with comedy fans and history buffs alike.
“Elvis & Nixon” begins in December of 1970, with Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon), disillusioned by the growing hippie counterculture, deciding he’d like to help the government crack down on drug use. As someone who’s mastered the art of disguise over the course of 30 feature films and acquired several honorary deputy badges to symbolize his patriotism, the Graceland resident considers himself an ideal candidate to be a deputy-at-large for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. With these credentials in mind, and along with longtime friends and Memphis Mafia members Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville), Elvis jets off to D.C. and shows up on the White House lawn to hand deliver a letter requesting to meet President Nixon (Kevin Spacey).
After determining that the request is not a joke, Nixon staffers Bud Krogh (Colin Hanks), Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) and H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan) take the letter to the President, who bluntly rejects it in favor of a previously scheduled nap. Meanwhile, thanks to a connection at the CIA, Elvis makes inroads with the Deputy Narcotics Director (Tracy Letts) in attaining his desired meeting.
As The King bides his time at the Washington Hotel while awaiting meeting approval, Nixon’s beleaguered staff schools the simpleminded head of state to the political benefits of aligning himself with someone of Elvis’s stature.
Although it could be argued that the screenplay by Joey and Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes (“The Princess Bride”) suffers from narrative inertia considering much of the second act consists of Elvis waiting and Nixon contemplating, audiences will so enjoy being in the company of these cultural icons that this flaw will likely go unnoticed. Also, thanks to the crackling dialogue, shrewd character observations, and ironic foreshadowing (the Watergate scandal and Elvis’ drug-related death are just a few of the references here), there is more than enough going on beneath the basic storyline to keep audiences engrossed. Liza Johnson’s (“Hateship Loveship”) lively direction and Terry Stacey’s standout cinematography also go a long way in keeping “Elvis & Nixon” chugging along at a steady pace.
If it hasn’t been made clear over the course of his accomplished career, Michael Shannon is about as diverse an actor as they come, and here his comic skills are prominently featured. In what could’ve resulted in a cartoonish depiction of the famous singer, Shannon brings tremendous depth to the role even when he’s sending up his absurd qualities like the wacky wardrobes and obsession with guns and karate. Similarly, although we’ve seen him portray a corrupt politician on the Netflix series “House of Cards,” here Kevin Spacey effortlessly fits into the uncomfortable shoes of the famously temperamental former President. And while Spacey has proven himself a master impersonator on talk show appearances and elsewhere, his interpretation of Nixon also never comes across as caricature.
It’s also worth noting that, while this film undeniably belongs to Shannon and Spacey, Colin Hanks and Tracy Letts make their presence felt as Nixon’s overstressed legal counsel Bud Krogh (who later went to prison for the Watergate scandal) and John Finlator, the incredulous Deputy Narcotics Director.
Many mysteries remain about the bizarre meeting between the rock god and the vain President (Nixon didn’t start recording Oval Office conversations until the following year), but “Elvis & Nixon” hysterically imagines the possibilities.
Rated R for some language.
Running Time: 87 minutes