The one-off meeting between President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley is a story that deserves a dramatisation, such is the bizarre nature of how it came about. Elvis and Nixon does a good job of it, partly due to some fanciful embellishment, but fails to realise its full potential due to a number of unforgiveable flaws.
The background is fairly straightforward. Elvis Presley (played by Michael Shannon), on the morning of 21st December 1970, showed up unannounced at The White House and requested a one-to-one meeting with Preseident Nixon (Kevin Spacey). He had one request: to become a Federal Agent-at-Large and receive a badge for his efforts. This would help him fight an undercover war on drugs that he felt was a huge issue in USA at the time. At first resistant to the idea, Nixon eventually gave in and the monumental meeting took place.
The first thing you’ll be disappointed about with this film is the lack of Elvis on the soundtrack. It seems like a simple point to get around, but every time the music kicked in I was left wanting the real deal, a constant reminder that the contents of the film presumably weren’t endorsed by Graceland. The soundtrack certainly evokes the era, making good use of Creedance Clearwater Revival and Otis Redding, but Elvis is Elvis.
Secondly, whilst Spacey does a wonderful impression-cum-caricature of President Nixon, Shannon fails to invoke even the slightest hint of The King. A fantastic actor in his own right (see Revolutionary Road, 99 Homes), I couldn’t help feel like this was a miscast. Visually, his appearance is far from the mark, with the angry and aggressive facial expressions implying an Elvis unfamiliar to most of his fans. This is compounded by a scene with an Elvis impersonator that’s played for laughs but left me thinking “Well, go on then Michael… Do your impression.” I appreciate that singing isn’t the point here, but Elvis is an iconic artist and the film’s success rests on how convincing the portrayal is. At least, that’s the case for the first half of the film.
Which brings us to the third and final shortcoming of the film – the criminal underuse of Kevin Spacey. The editors realised he wasn’t in it enough and tried to patch a bit of a scene with him in at the beginning, but essentially he doesn’t re-appear until well beyond the halfway point of the film. By this point the film was already at risk of being a complete failure. Spacey, somehow, succeeds in rescuing the film with a performance that’s truly exciting, the play-off between him and everyone he interacts with proving to be the film’s one major saving grace. It is just a shame we didn’t get to see more of him. There’s a time and place to leave Kevin Spacey out of your film until the climactic scene and this isn’t it.
So, whilst I was pleasantly surprised that I left the cinema having enjoyed this film, there were three fatal flaws too many to leave me wanting to recommend this to anyone but the most ardent blockbuster avoider. There are simply too many good films out at the moment to see this taking flight.