Director Liza Johnson’s engaging and engrossing 2016 shaggy dog story is the previously untold true one of the peculiar meeting between Elvis Presley and US President Richard Nixon on the morning of 21 December 1970. Only in America!
The screenplay by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes is mainly humorous yet also revealing and oddly charming, given what a couple of terrible old rogues the two protagonists were. The movie seems to be setting out to be a factual, informative drama but it ends up being a satirical comedy. And that’s very nice.
Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Tricky Dicky are both exceptionally good, though this has the slight problem of making their characters appealing, which hardly seems the point. In fact, they’re both the villains, in a film with no heroes , just consenting monsters. Yet it works and works well. Nobody trying to write their own scripts at home should try this as a role model.
It is actually The Michael Shannon Show. He’s rarely off screen, and, for a man who looks nothing like Elvis, more like Freddie Starr impersonating Elvis, he gets right into character, quite brilliantly, like Helen Mirren did in The Queen or Colin Firtb did in The King’s Speech. It’s a brio turn, a tour de force. Spacey is largely off screen for the first 40 minutes (apart form the very start), but, when he re-emerges on screen, the film hots up another several degrees.
The movie stands and falls by how good Shannon and Spacey are together. And they’re great. Spacey, who equally looks nothing like Nixon, inhabits total Nixon-ness, and is a generous actors towards Shannon, giving a perfect star supporting turn. I hope Spacey gets remembered at Oscar nomination time. He may have equal billing but he’s a best supporting actor.
Alex Pettyfer and (less so) Johnny Knoxville do well as Elvis’s people. Colin Hanks and (less so) Evan Peters do well as Nixon’s people. There’s a good period feel and atmosphere, the film is likeably quirky, and increasingly funny as it goes along.
Given that they are fallen idols, it is strange that the Elvis-Nixon handshake picture is the most requested photograph in the National Archives.
© Derek Winnert 2016 Movie Review
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