The King of Reek
The latest attempt by Amazon Studios to poop in Netflix’s yard, Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon boasts credibility-boosting above-the-line talent in Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey, but it also feels strangely pointless. It concerns the King of Rock’s hazily motivated and unannounced visit to the White House in December 1970, where he met with pre-Watergate, first-term President Richard Nixon, and posed for one of the most baffling and widely reproduced photographs of the twentieth century.
Spacey plays Nixon, a still popular but culturally embattled commander-in-chief whose underlings grasp at any opportunity to win over “the youth vote.” But it’s a decidedly supporting role, and the film is even less interested in probing Nixon than it is in probing Elvis (it’s lonely at the top, sad emoji, moving on). Even Shannon’s Elvis plays something of a supporting part to Alex Pettyfer as Elvis’ childhood friend Jerry Schilling, a real-life Memphis Mafia member who Presley collected on his way to the White House.
Of course, in order for that sort of switcheroo to work, you better write a compelling character and cast a charismatic actor, and Elvis & Nixon fails miserably on both counts. It doesn’t help that Pettyfer is nearly two decades younger than Shannon and looks three decades younger, but either way we never care whether or not Jerry gets home in time to marry the nice girl. It’s a major roadblock for the film—the only ticking-clock tension and moral agency comes from Jerry—and an obvious tactic to extend a wafer-thin story to feature length.
To its credit, the film doesn’t try to psychoanalyze Elvis, and it doesn’t try to turn this sociocultural footnote into an all-encompassing commentary on the era. To its shame, the film doesn’t really try to do anything at all, except maybe score some cheap laughs and roll its eyes at Elvis’ wardrobe. But there’s a much bigger problem with Elvis & Nixon, one that dwarfs any concerns about overly precious political commentary or structurally dicey storytelling: Michael Shannon doesn’t look, sound or act anything like Elvis Presley.
It’s not exactly a bad performance—Shannon certainly captures Presley’s mix of majesty and need, the way he could command any room, whether the Oval Office or a doughnut shop—but there’s just no getting past Shannon’s craggy face and Midwestern voice. At least he doesn’t make things worse by doing an impression. Whatever the intention, Shannon is so completely not Elvis (in much the same way that he was so completely not General Zod in Man of Steel) that the juxtaposition between actor and role is potentially fascinating.
In the shoddy and self-satisfied Elvis & Nixon, though, it just comes off as shallow and ridiculous, and it’s hard to fathom why anyone committed to this tinfoil trifle. The film’s lowbrow sensibility and low-grade production values betray any artistic pretensions beyond nostalgic kitsch, and much of Elvis & Nixon plays like an extended rehearsal for a Saturday Night Live skit that never made it to air.