Spoiler alert: Elvis meets Nixon. There’s really not much more to the odd-bird historical comedy Elvis & Nixon, which recently premiered at Tribeca, than that. Elvis gets the idea to meet Nixon. Elvis goes to D.C. to meet Nixon. Complications temporarily stand between Elvis meeting Nixon, until Elvis meets Nixon, after which the movie ends.
It might just be the lowest-stakes movie this side of a Richard Linklater picture, primarily because director Liza Johnson takes less interest in the two icons for who they are than what they represent. In 1970, Elvis Presley showed up unannounced at the northwest gate of the White House coolly requesting an audience with Richard Nixon so that the President could swear him in as a Federal Agent-at-Large (a position Presley assumed existed, and was not actually a thing). At this point, Elvis and the Commander-in-Chief were probably the two most famous living Americans. They both wanted something from one another, and Elvis & Nixon has fun investigating what happens when two people unaccustomed to the word “no” collide. Nixon and Elvis could be anyone, for all this film cares; it finds far more fascination in celebrity on a conceptual level, and their unlikely-but-true meeting cannily illustrates the fragility of fame.
Oh, and Michael Shannon does karate.
Landing Shannon to portray the King and Spacey for our weaseliest President was a major coup, but that’s not even the half of it: Evan Peters and Colin Hanks step in as the federal flunkies responsible for coordinating the powwow and Alex Pettyfer plays an old Elvis pal, and they’re joined by professional testicle-punisher Johnny Knoxville, Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts, cure for the common pop star Sky Ferreira, Spring Breakers grad Ashley Benson, and model-socialite Poppy Delevingne. This ends up being a double-edged sword for the film, as it corrals all these left-field performers and then squanders them on two-line bit parts. But even so, the pure weirdness factor proves amusing.
The same could be said of the two main performers as well. Spacey and Shannon imbue both of their frequently impersonated characters with enough humanity to avoid full-on caricature while still leaning into the foundational strangeness of the project, and clearly relishing the chance to do so. (Even though he remains almost perfectly stoic throughout the film, it’s obvious Shannon’s having the time of his life.) At the same time, the film resists the urge endemic to biopics to use these real-life events to explain the minutiae and internal contradictions of a famous figure, the same trouble that hamstrung Trumbo last fall. By the end credits, it’s not any more clear why Elvis felt it was his personal duty to combat the drug menace in the United States by becoming a make-believe secret agent. What is clear, however, is that regardless of the subject at hand, any celebrity necessarily cultivates an ambivalent relationship with his or her own fame.