It’s the most requested photograph in the National Archives: President Richard Nixon and a stage-ready Elvis Presley, shaking hands and posing together in the White House‘s Oval Office. The unlikely meeting took place in December 1970, and now, its story is hitting the big screen in Elvis & Nixon, starring Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon.
There’s no official recording of how exactly the interaction between these two icons went down. But Elvis & Nixon, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, sets out to fill in the gaps — and yes, the result is just as hilarious and weird as it sounds.
The movie, directed by Liza Johnson, starts off chronicling events that have long since become the stuff of historical legend: After becoming disheartened by the news of drugs and national turmoil he sees on TV, the King (Shannon) decides to offer his help to the government. To make this happen, he and friend Jerry Schilling (played by Alex Pettyfer) fly to Washington D.C. with an almost illegible, handwritten letter for Nixon (Spacey), requesting to be appointed a “federal agent at large.” He attempts to deliver it personally, even driving up to the White House gate, much to the utter disbelief of the guards. Though he’s denied entry, the letter eventually lands in the hands of key aides, Egil “Bud” Krough (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters).
Sensing an opportunity to gain some cool points with a younger demographic, the duo get approval to Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan) and set up the meeting. Though not initially keen on the idea, the president eventually agrees to it. While the details of their meeting weren’t preserved, we do know that Nixon requested an autograph for his daughter, Julie, and that Presley gifted the president an antique Colt .45 pistol mounted in a display case. The rest of the film’s comical reimagining comes from the minds of Joey and Hanala Sagal and actor Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), who co-wrote the satirical screenplay.
The subsequent encounter may not be all fact, but it makes for some pretty entertaining fiction. Elvis & Nixon makes a point of milking the absurdity of the surreal situation, resulting in several priceless moments: Elvis comparing the White House to Graceland (“Looks a little like my place,” he says), Nixon swallowing his annoyance at the King eating his M&M’s, and the two unexpectedly bonding over their dislike for the counterculture.
The fact that neither Spacey nor Shannon look like the icons they’re playing only adds to the fun of it all, especially since both go all out in their respective performances. Spacey nails Nixon’s gruff voice, awkward mannerisms, and uncomfortably stiff posture. Shannon isn’t as physically or vocally convincing, but he still manages to superbly convey the essence of Presley: flashy, ego-driven, impulsive, charismatic and underneath it all, lonely.
Unfortunately for audiences, the movie doesn’t spend as much time on the actual meeting as it does on the build-up, which isn’t nearly as interesting. It also doesn’t help that when not focused on the titular characters, the movie attempts to flesh out the supporting characters, mainly Schilling and his plans to propose to his girlfriend. The problem is, no one really cares about Elvis’s friend’s love life — especially when we could be watching the icon annoy the Secret Service and demonstrate karate to the President of the United States.
Despite these weak spots, Elvis & Nixon is worth watching for the two leads, whose back-and-forth in the Oval Office almost feels like a one-act play. Between Shannon’s wry delivery and Spacey’s deadpan reactions, the story behind the photograph becomes just as fun and funny as we all imagined it to be.
Elvis & Nixon hits theaters in limited release, starting on April 22.