When you think of actors who you could cast in a biopic of Elvis Presley, Michael Shannon is probably not the first actor who comes to mind. And yet that’s just what the people behind Elvis & Nixon did. They also cast Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon, a decision that, on the surface, makes more sense than Shannon playing Elvis.
And yet, in the finished film, it’s Shannon who gives the memorable performance while Spacey often seems lost in the role of Nixon. Fortunately, with Kevin Spacey’s role largely being an extended cameo, Michael Shannon is the one who is in nearly every scene of the movie.
Elvis and Nixon is based on a true story. In 1970, Elvis Presley asked for a meeting with Richard Nixon who, if the film is to be believed, wasn’t quite sure who Elvis actually was. It turns out that Elvis was very concerned about the growing popularity of illegal drugs. In between consuming prodigious amounts of legal drugs, Elvis formulated a plan. Perhaps he could go to the White House and convince Nixon to deputize him. Elvis could be a special agent of the FBI. Even more importantly, maybe Elvis could get a FBI badge.
So, was Elvis sincere or was he just crazy? Elvis & Nixon walks a thin line between those two possibilities, suggesting that Elvis may have been a bit unblanced but he was also achingly sincere. Michael Shannon plays Elvis as a man who is blissfully out-of-touch but who truly wants to make the world a better place. As played by Shannon, Elvis is defined by ennui. He may be the biggest star in the world but he still struggles with the feeling that he hasn’t accomplished anything. This is a film that asks, “When you’ve reached top, where else can you do?” Elvis wants to make the world a better place by combating the spread of drugs.
And he also really, really wants that badge. There’s an almost child-like petulance to Shannon’s Elvis. He may be sincere but he’s also very much used to getting whatever he wants.
For that matter, so is Nixon. And Nixon really doesn’t want to visit with Elvis. Of course, that’s before his White House aides mention that being seen with Elvis could help him with the youth vote when he runs for reelection. And then his daughter says that she wants Elvis’s autograph….
Anyway, it all leads to a meeting in the Oval Office and a scene that would have worked better if Spacey’s performance as Nixon was a bit less of caricature. That said, the scene still works because Michael Shannon totally invests himself in the role of Elvis. When he’s talking to Nixon and showing off his karate moves, Elvis is happier than we’ve ever seen him. He’s performing on the biggest stage of his career.
Elvis & Nixon came out earlier this year. It’s an enjoyable film, even if it’s never quite as good as you might want it to be. If nothing else, this film proves that Michael Shannon can pretty much do anything.