Forgotten Gems: Elvis & Nixon (****) – The claws of a tiger

Elvis & Nixon – 2016

Director Liza Johnson
Screenplay Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, Cary Elwes
Starring Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts, Tate Donovan, Ashley Benson

A short time ago, before we all discovered what kind of monster he allegedly is, Kevin Spacey was a good actor. He still might be a good actor, but we’re not going to hear about it. It seems appropriate that he plays Richard Nixon in this movie showing the comedic possibilities of the actual meeting with the maligned ex-president and Elvis Presley on December 21, 1970, “…as a matter of national security.”

One might never think of Michael Shannon as being one to fill the shoes of the undisputed King of Rock-n-Roll. He certainly is not as handsome as Elvis. Five minutes into the film, however, he’s Elvis. His skill of looking slightly disaffected and overly concerned with the the direction of the U.S. circa 1970 reveals a man who has no idea how close he is to the end of his rope.

Along for the ride are Jerry Schillings (Pettyfer) and Sonny West (Knoxville), two members of his entourage, known as the Memphis Mafia. Their long hair and slightly unkempt appearance present an enigmatic puzzle to a White House known to have “…an image problem with the youth vote.”

The movie is a straight across presentation which revels in its own absurdity. The film being co-produced by Schillings, we get to see him as a small time hero, humble and understanding to the hilt. The rest of the characters are allowed to play up on their brush with fame with the aging icon.

The film has the smarts enough to not get mixed up with modern politics. This especially helps when the door is closed and the two actually have a discussion. We get a decent educated guess on the kind of talk they likely would have. More importantly, it never stops being entertaining.

Shannon and Spacey are both in top form. They avoid hammering easy targets in an overly obvious way. After all this time, no one’s going to reinvent the historical wheel when it comes to two of the most documented individuals of their day. Instead, we get a chance to see where these two could hypothetically have a meeting of the minds.

Even better, three of the primary White House players in the story are not played for unnecessary shots as being indicted and convicted in the Watergate investigation. Too often we see lesser filmmakers take opportunities to paint people as criminals in every scene. Egil Krogh (Hanks), Dwight Chapin (Peters) and H.R. Hadelman (Donovan) are played with no shades of grey. They were just employees of the President by this point.

Really, the movie just writes itself when you have the right two actors in the lead. Shannon and Spacey are impeccable in their ability to downplay the personality. This allows director Johnson to sit back and let the absurdity of the situation flourish with its own simple truths. A prime example is the process of being questioned by security regarding “illegal” firearms.

This film is a must for fans of Michael Shannon. It’s yet another example of his powerfully subtle presentation skills. If one can get past the fact that it stars Spacey, this is film will delight, inform and entertain the viewer.

(**** out of *****)

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