Director: Liza Johnson
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon
Written by Fiona Underhill
This film is right up my street – I’m really interested in American politics of the 20th century (particularly Watergate) and I have a mild obsession with Elvis (I may have been married by Elvis in Vegas – I can neither confirm nor deny). So, the trailer for this film hit all of my buttons. The casting excited me too – the pairing of Kevin Spacey (Nixon) and Michael Shannon (Elvis) is a meeting of acting talent not to be sniffed at. I was more surprised to see Alex Pettyfer in a pivotal role (whose last big gig was in Magic Mike – reportedly an unpleasant experience for all involved, meaning he was not invited back for the sequel). Pettyfer plays one of Elvis’ closest friends, which seems surprising given the age difference between the two (remember, this is 1970s Elvis).
The plot is one of those “so unbelievable it must be true” stories. Apparently, Elvis was getting bored in his late 30s – doing the odd run of shows in Vegas – on the comedown from his peak in the 1950s. So bored, in fact, he was considering alternative careers. Depressed by the scenes on his TV screens – hippies, drugs, the Black Panthers, The Beatles, Vietnam etc – Elvis decided that his country’s youth needed him. And what they needed was for Elvis to be an undercover FBI field agent “at large”. Elvis had been given numerous commemorative police and sheriff’s badges over the years, but he desired an FBI badge – not one just to be displayed in a case – but one that would give him actual power. So, he wrote a letter to President Nixon and hand-delivered it to The White House. He then holed up in a nearby hotel, with Jerry (Pettyfer) another friend Sonny (played by Johnny Knoxville) in tow, waiting for a meeting to be set up. However, there is a snag – Nixon hates Elvis. However, two of Nixon’s aides, played by Colin Hanks (swoon) and Evan Peters, can see the advantage of a photo-call with Elvis; it could make the president seem younger, hipper and more likeable. So Elvis’ two friends, and Nixon’s two aides, conspire to make the meeting happen.
This film really relies on the performances of its two leads. Shannon, of course, is a delight as Elvis. Although the central premise is ridiculous, Shannon does portray Elvis as multi-layered. He struggles with fame (there is a scene where he tries to board a commercial flight on his own) and is fundamentally, lonely. He is desperate for friendship, but also manipulates and emotionally blackmails Jerry; you can tell that Elvis would have been a difficult person to say no to. Spacey (more so than Shannon) has obviously studied the vocal and physical mannerisms of his real-life counterpart closely. The performance feels more like impersonation than Shannon’s. This may be slightly unfair, as we spend less time with Nixon, but his character is so much more unlikeable than Elvis. We do see some nuance in his personality – he, too, has a deep desire to be liked and is oddly fixated on his appearance. It is obvious that he is jealous of the handsome charm of some of his predecessors (JFK), as well as Elvis. The film spends a long time building up to “the meet”, but it doesn’t disappoint. Seeing the most powerful man in the world head-to-head with the most famous man in the world means fireworks are definitely going to fly. Seeing the status of the two characters change throughout the scene, and working out who has the upper-hand at any given moment certainly keeps the audience gripped.
This climatic scene is hilarious, and to be honest, the whole film in general, is pretty hilarious. It is hard to imagine someone like Elvis having such delusions of grandeur, but perhaps you get so famous that nothing seems impossible? He thinks he can have and do anything. Perhaps the surprising thing is that he didn’t ask to be President? I would highly recommend this film, even if you’re not as big a fan of the protagonists as me. It is really enjoyable, really funny and the central performances are great.