WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
It’s December 1970.
Sitting watching TV alone in his Graceland mansion, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) – yes – THAT Elvis Presley – gets annoyed by what he’s seeing. It looks very much like the break-down of society. So angry is he that he pulls a pistol from its holster and shoots the TV.
He decides he’s going to do his bit for his country, so he sets off to Washington to become an undercover federal-agent-at-large, for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He’s been studying the drugs subculture, communist brainwashing and anti-American protest (prompted by The Beatles, naturally) after all.
With the help of his assistant Jerry (Alex Pettyfer) and his bodyguard Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), Elvis manages to secure a meeting in the Oval Office with a somewhat sceptical but popularity-hungry President Nixon (Kevin Spacey).
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
For a while, at least, the most requested photograph from the US National Archive is a photo of Elvis and Nixon shaking hands in the White House. But in the days before the paranoid president started recording everything that was said in the Oval Office, precisely what was said by the two men at this meeting is subject to conjecture.
However, notes taken by Nixon’s assistant (Colin Hanks) and the memoirs of Presley’s wife Priscilla have helped to fill out a story that were it not for the photo would seem nothing short of preposterous.
The King conspiring to meet the President in the Oval Office, to ask for a federal agent’s badge, so that he can go undercover to protect America’s degenerate youth? Such surreal touches as the gift Elvis tries to bring into the White House, Nixon’s preferred snacks, the protocol for meeting the President, the response of the airline worker who looks up to see Elvis standing in front of her and the reaction of cafe patrons to the King’s request for an original maple bar all just add to the sense of fantasy in what purports to be a real-life tale that becomes so bizarre, you feel it must be true.
Among the cast of slightly stunned supporting characters, Tracy Letts is fun as a bemused federal agent and the efforts of Colin Hanks and his fellow lackey Evan Peters to try to persuade Nixon of the benefits of meeting the star are neatly handled.
But the two leads are where most of the praise is due.
Michael Shannon exudes the charisma of the greatest celebrity of his time with wry humour as he portrays a gun-toting rock-and-roll star with an over-inflated sense of self-importance and an almost total absence of irony.
But the highlight is Kevin Spacey’s pre-Watergate Nixon, as one of the most entertaining, yet complex performances you’re likely to see on screen this year; from his initial point-blank refusal to involve himself in such frippery to his eventual sycophancy – starting as hard as a stone statue and ending up somewhere between a rabbit in the headlights and teenaged Justin Bieber fan.
From a delightfully sharp script, Liza Johnson gets the direction to the point, delivering an unexpected and unexpectedly funny and zippy supposedly real-life tale of absurdity that – if true – would have been surreal beyond measure for everyone involved – except perhaps for The King himself.
And above all, with not a moment of screen-time wasted, Elvis & Nixon comes in under an hour and a half.
It’s one of those very rare films that leaves you – if not wanting more – certainly capable of accepting more. And it’s one of those “based on real-life” type films where it doesn’t really matter how historically accurate it is – it’s feels like 86 minutes of fresh fun, an odd-couple comedy that has the added benefit of satirising the worlds of both celebrity and politics.