It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The most requested image in the U.S. government's National Archive is a photo of President Richard Nixon with the increasingly isolated rock star Elvis Presley, who visited the Oval Office on December 21, 1970 to ask to be made a Drug Enforcement Agent. Nobody but Elvis and Nixon were privy to the details of what the two men talked about behind closed doors, which of course makes their meeting a rich subject for comedy and drama. "Elvis & Nixon" treats it as a chance to think about loneliness, the way that the media-constructed image tends to swallow up famous people's actual personalities, and how accomplished men express their fears when they wield whatever power they've accumulated.
Unfortunately, the result is only fitfully entertaining or illuminating. The actual meeting of Elvis and Nixon takes up a very small part of the movie's running time. The bulk of the story follows Elvis (Michael Shannon) as he tries to get into the White House unannounced and Nixon (Kevin Spacey) as he waves off advisers who try to convince him that meeting with the King of Rock 'n' Roll would help him with the "youth vote." None of the supporting characters (in Elvis' entourage and on Nixon's staff) are as compelling as the title characters, and the film's attempts to flesh them out prove frustrating because who cares, really, about the girlfriend problems of Elvis' best friend, or the interoffice politics of the West Wing when you could be watching American history's most venal, insecure and paranoid president commiserate with a musical superstar who shares his fear that the country is on a slide-trough to Hell?
We get a bit of insight into Elvis' feelings of alienation and despair, but there's not enough of it to make this film's Elvis seem like more than an underdeveloped vehicle for social satire and bleak psychological comedy. By the 1970s, Elvis' movie career was dead, his country-gospel recordings hadn't caught on with younger fans who were enamored with the Beatles and the Stones and Jimi Hendrix and other psychedelically-flavored rockers, and he'd failed to capitalize on the success of his "Elvis '68" TV special, which a lot of people thought would signal a powerful new phase in his career. The Elvis we meet here carries himself like a defeated man. He plays casino shows for die-hard fans and frets that he's become a cartoon version of himself. One of the more effective scenes finds the King standing in front of a mirror, telling his best friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) that Elvis and "Elvis" bear little relation to each other anymore, and he no longer feels connected to his roots as a poor Memphis redneck. Not even his old buddies can assuage his feelings of estrangement; they love him, in their way, but there's no denying that they also love being able to say they're friends with Elvis, that they live in his house and help themselves to his groupies, that he's bought them clothes and cars.
Michael Shannon does a better job of filling in all these details than the film does. A master of stylized suggestions, he's one of the greatest living American actors, a performer who comes at every character from a series of unexpected angles. Watch the way he inclines his head, the way he punctuates his statements with finger-snaps and karate moves and hand-waves that suggest a priestly blessing (or a Jedi master trying to halt an enemy in his tracks). He pitches his voice higher than a typical impersonator would, a choice that makes you think of Elvis as an overgrown Little Boy Lost. There are moments when Elvis seems to be giving a performance as Elvis, the costumed musical superhero, because the real guy was subsumed by him many years ago. Shannon doesn't really look like the real Elvis, but it doesn't matter. Like Anthony Hopkins in "Nixon" and Denzel Washington in "Malcolm X," he's not doing an impression. He's performing an idea of a real person, with such warmth and intelligence that you feel as though you understand Elvis more completely.