In a deck of playing cards, only an ace can trump the king; in Elvis & Nixon, even the leader of the free world is forced to play second banana. Inspired by a single 1970 photograph—famously the most requested image in the National Archives—filmmaker Liza Johnson’s fizzy, gold-plated caper recreates the fateful rendezvous between two of the 20th century’s most indelible figures, a brief meeting still shrouded in secrecy decades after it took place. (Most of the movie’s source material is pulled from two written accounts, one by Nixon staffer Egil “Bud” Krogh and another by longtime Presley associate Jerry Schilling.)
Michael Shannon, an actor whose intensity level rarely falls below 11, inhabits Elvis with a sensitivity that belies the polyester dazzle and piled-on wigginess of his wardrobe. His Elvis is arrogant, oblivious, and more than a little bit silly, but strikingly lonely and vulnerable too: A sideburned bird in a cage who longs to do good for his country and save what he deems a degenerate generation of stoned hippies and would-be communists from themselves.
As Nixon, Kevin Spacey is given less to do; gruff and jowly, he’s a vaguely paranoid crank who basically tells his assistants to get off his lawn when they first suggest the meeting. But when it finally happens, after much finagling (from supporting players Colin Hanks and Evan Peters on the White House side, and Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville on the other) it’s worth the wait: the pair’s strange chemistry centers the movie.
Elvis & Nixon isn’t much. At 86 minutes, it’s carried along more by era-appropriate set design and general kookiness than any real sense of storytelling import, and lingers mostly for the memorable moments Shannon’s performance provides. But as a surreal slice of history served up nearly half a century later, it feels oddly satisfying: A reminder not just of simpler times, but of all the other wild untold stories we may never know, just because no camera was there to capture them. B+