If the essence of acting is the willing suspension of disbelief, then you will find no better example than that shared by Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey in and as, respectively, ELVIS & NIXON. Based on the improbable meeting between the two in December 1970, it is a fanciful, and at times unexpectedly moving, reimagining of the 36 hours leading up to it, and the attendant chaos each of these icons of Americana generated in their wake.
The facts are these. While simultaneously watching three televisions at Graceland, Elvis is overcome by what he perceives to be the subversion of his country by illegal drugs. When shooting out one of the appliances isn’t enough to quell his concern, he decides to visit Richard Nixon in the White House and be sworn in as an undercover Federal Agent. That it’s 4am, Memphis time, is no deterrent. Going alone, however, is, and so his first stop, after running into trouble trying to board a commercial flight with firearms, isn’t Washington, D.C. but rather Los Angles, to pick up his friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer). That Jerry has a job (editing film at Paramount) and a girlfriend (to whom he is about to propose) and might be inconvenienced by all this doesn’t cross The King’s mind. And how Shannon conveys that mindset is the key to why this is much more than just a fluffy bit of pop culture history.
Shannon, who bears no resemblance to Elvis beyond the distinctive hairdo, wardrobe, and raspy whisper of a voice, channels the inner Elvis. This is the guy who has lived in the bubble of fame so long that he genuinely has no clue about how real life works. His need for constant companionship is about more than just a gregarious nature or needing attention. On some level he knows that he has wandered into Neverland, and won’t be coming back. But this is no narcissist. He accepts the adulation the way the rest of us accept a hello and that things will happen for him because he is Elvis, but he is also the insecure guy with generous impulses who has accepted his fate as an object, yet is self-aware enough to retain a whisper of melancholy about surrendering his life as an individual.
Hence showing up at the White House, Jerry in tow, to personally take a handwritten letter to Nixon seems like the most logical thing to do. And because he’s Elvis, and because he has a counterintuitively sincere humility combined with a fatal charm, it does happen. As does the meeting he requests, but not before his entourage and that of the President are flummoxed, bemused, and otherwise sent off-kilter with trying to get these two in the same room. You will never look at Dr. Pepper in quite the same way.
Spacey’s gift for sneering contempt has never been put to better use than in his interpretation of Richard Nixon. He, too, eschews prosthetic makeup in favor of only using the familiar hairline and the self-conscious hunching from which emerges the familiar nervous baritone. The paranoia, the pettiness, the impatience, combined with the palpable need to be liked is sublimated into a potent character that is, like Nixon himself, unlikable on an instinctive level, and yet completely fascinating. His eager aides, Egil “Bud” Krogh (callow Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (earnest Evan Peters) see an opportunity to improve Nixon’s image with everyone by having his picture taken with a beloved superstar. Their machinations, including colluding with Elvis’ entourage, are scathingly brilliant and deliciously underhanded.
Having Shannon deliver his externalized inner monologues to mirrors is a scooch precious, but there is such authenticity of feeling that he brings a hint of true gravitas to Elvis, still mourning his stillborn twin brother. As for Spacey’s Nixon, still fulminating over being less handsome than Jack Kennedy, and toying with his aides for the fun of it (the way he warbles the the silent last diphthong in Bud’s last name is a perverse and telling abuse of power), he never quite makes of him a sympathetic character, but he does make us believe that once Elvis starts talking to him about the Communist conspiracy and the viciousness of the press, he has found a sort of soul mate, letting us see the many facets of fame and its attendant dehumanizing elements.
ELVIS & NIXON is a procedural satire that prefers a low key approach to its satire. It can’t be a coincidence that one of the televisions Elvis is watching at the start of the film is showing DR. STRANGELOVE, a film whose source material was a dramatic thriller. There is a naughty sense of voyeurism, too, as we watch the private moments of these celebrities with all their foibles and delusions. To see them before the fall, as it were, innocent only of where their own natures will take them evokes a sense of Elvis’ own melancholy, as well, as we in the audience know what fate has in store for them.