It’s actually a good thing that the filmmakers behind Elvis & Nixon don’t take their story too seriously. Treated with a Frost/Nixon-level of gravity and historical import, the project would collapse under the weight of its own ridiculousness. But director Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship) and the screenwriting team (Hanala Sagal, Joey Sagal, and Cary Elwes) recognize that what they’re doing is only a few steps off from Bubba Ho-Tep, Don Coscarelli’s horror-comedy about a geriatric Elvis fighting a mummy with a friend who claims to be a reincarnated JFK. The premise of Elvis & Nixon isn’t quite as preposterous: it imagines what happened before and during a meeting that actually did take place between Elvis Presley and then-President Richard Nixon in 1970. But while it isn't a horror-comedy, it’s something almost as disreputable and fun — it’s cinematic fan-fiction.
The historical record is clear on why Elvis visited Nixon: he wanted “the credentials of a federal agent,” according to a letter he wrote the president. He believed a badge pronouncing him to be a “federal agent at large” would give him broad powers to go undercover and fight subversive elements in American culture. So he dropped in on Washington, DC with his aide Jerry Schilling and bodyguard, Sonny West. When Nixon aide Egil “Bud” Krogh received the letter, he immediately saw the benefit Nixon could get out of meeting someone with Elvis' wide popularity, and set out to make it happen. But the meeting wasn’t recorded, which leaves it as the object of eager speculation and open humor.
Elvis & Nixon, which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, naturally saves that eventual meeting for the climax — if an unhurried conversation between icons, punctuated with low-key gags and discomfort humor, can be called a climax. The bulk of the film is spent on the build-up, as Elvis (Michael Shannon), Jerry (Alex Pettyfer), and eventually Sonny (Johnny Knoxville) work toward their meeting on one end, and Bud (Colin Hanks) and Nixon aide Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) try to persuade and prep their recalcitrant boss on the other. Both Nixon (Kevin Spacey) and Elvis need a certain amount of ego-massaging and handling from their cautious underlings, and the filmmakers evoke a little sympathy for both sets of put-upon employees. But the film still makes it clear that their insider access to power and fame is worth the frustration. A slight, underserved plot has Jerry trying to sever ties with Elvis in order to live his own life, earn his own way in Hollywood with a low-level editing job, and marry his girlfriend. But he clearly can't get clear of Elvis, a close friend who simultaneously needs Jerry and isn't used to people — the president included — telling him no.
Johnson's film tends toward wry comedy, though it sometimes spills over into sitcom wackiness: Shannon portrays Elvis as sincere and savvy in some ways, but completely out of touch with reality in others. He's aware of his status, and uses it as a weapon, but he's also bought into his own legend enough that he assumes he's immortal and impervious. Consequently, Jerry and Sonny manage him like a large, valuable dog that can't be trusted to stay out of traffic, and their flailing around him sometimes goes over the top. There's a particularly absurdist air to their simultaneous attempts to steer him, please him, kowtow to him, and maintain real friendships with him.
The humor occasionally lunges into hacky exaggeration, like when Elvis meets a boastful Elvis impersonator, or Nixon and Elvis compare the square footage of their homes like fishermen bragging about their biggest catch. The latter moment is just missing Spiro Agnew popping in as the prerequisite wacky neighbor, complete with laugh track. But more often, Elvis & Nixon is slyly funny about the similarities between political and cultural capital, and the specific neuroses of the two icons that embody them. One of the best scenes has Jerry and Sonny meeting Bud and Dwight in a parking garage (clearly meant to evoke Deep Throat / Watergate) to strategize about how to pull off the meeting. They're wildly different types — two stiff young functionaries in suits and '50s-scientist glasses, two nascent hippies in leather jackets and Elvis-aping haircuts — but they recognize their kinship and their common cause. Their low-key harmonizing over the next step of their plan has a little West Wing resonance, mixed with the tension of a heist caper.
Spacey and Shannon have odd roles to play here; neither of them resemble the men they're portraying, and both resort to caricature to the point of self-parody. Shannon drawls and swaggers. Spacey hunches and purses his lips. Both seem like they're trying out their celebrity impressions for the late-night talk-show circuit. But the film is more about attitude than verisimilitude. Spacey plays Nixon like a running gag until Elvis actually arrives, at which point he switches the president from canny-curmudgeon mode to political-charmer mode, and suddenly seems to be playing a man instead of a façade.
And Shannon turns Elvis into the ultimate straight man, a walking sight gag who has no idea how much comedy he's enabling. Unlike Nixon, he's consistent inside the meeting and out of it: we never see his full-on stage persona, or the entire force of his performance charisma. But that just makes him seem more sincere. As a stage entertainer who never takes the stage here, he's remarkably free of pretense.
Shannon does sometimes look for the pathos in his rockstar role. Like so many fan-fiction stories, Elvis & Nixon tries to have a Big Feels moment where it plucks at the heartstrings. In this case, it takes the form of a monologue about the price of fame and Elvis' loss of identity. But this kind of deep thinking feels forced and artificial, and it's out of tune with the rest of the film. Elvis & Nixon is at its best when it sticks to what-if whimsy and the enjoyable fantasy of worlds colliding, with all the outlandish possibilities that crossover stories suggest. Elvis took his request to be a federal agent seriously. Virtually no one else did, including the filmmakers here. Their gentle absurdity perfectly fits the absurdity of the situation.