May leave you feeling all shook up

by Dave Phillips
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THE most requested photograph from the US National Archives, so the story goes, is not of American soldiers raising their flag at Iwo Jima, nor is it Marilyn Monroe’s breezy publicity shot – it is of two men, Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley, nonchalantly posing for a handshake in the White House.
Taken in December 1970, the image offers a juxtaposition between two worlds – the world of conservative political power epitomised by Nixon, and the world of pop culture personified by the then reclusive Elvis.
The latest offering from American director Liza Johnson, Elvis & Nixon (Cert 12A, 86 mins) imagines the quirky behind the scene action in the run up to the unexpected and undocumented meeting.
After years cooped up in his home, Graceland, Elvis (Michael Shannon) is growing deeply concerned with the state of the American nation, and the death of the American character.
The only solution is an impromptu visit to The White House, with a personal request to meet with President Nixon (Kevin Spacey, taking a familiar Oval Office seat) to discuss how to set the country on the right path.
Some of the most alluring elements of the film are in the true-life details. Elvis did apparently turn up unannounced, and his hand-written letter appeals to Nixon to make him a “federal agent at large” – a position which Elvis hoped would allow him to travel undercover to infiltrate drug gangs and save the youth of the nation.
With a penchant for brooding and intense performances, Shannon seems like an unlikely choice to play Elvis.
However, the casting choice turns out to be one of the film’s strongest point – no doubt in part due to the fact that Johnson directed Shannon in her 2011 feature, Return, but mainly because the Elvis we see here is not the clean-cut heartthrob of his earlier years.
Weighed down by the ostentatious gold rings and bangles, this is an Elvis that is growing increasingly jaded, paranoid, and ill-at-ease with his position as a pop icon.
Spacey, as Nixon, is a much more obvious fit, albeit with the actor committing to some bulking out to fit the role.
His Nixon is bombastic, surly, and absolutely uninterested in popular culture – though he is shrewd enough to know that a PR opportunity like this one does not literally present itself on your doorstep every day.
While the film is focused on the meeting of the two icons, the actual pow-wow acts as the pinnacle to an expertly paced build up.
Much of the heart of the film lies in the relationships between the leading men and the network of people that support them.
Elvis’ childhood friend, Jerry (Alex Pettyfer) accompanies him on his trip to Washington; part baby-sitter and part confidante, Jerry’s role allows the film to focus on the nature of fame and friendship.
Likewise, Nixon’s administration team, led by Fargo’s Colin Hanks, acts as a way to wryly expose some of the power behind the throne.
Elvis & Nixon manages to skilfully walk a fine line, embracing the quirkiness of its main characters and building a wonderful piece of fiction around the odd meeting.
Yet for all the larger-than-life elements that both men embody, Shannon and Spacey manage to bring some real moments of depth and humanity.
The end result is a very snappy, fun, and insightful work of speculative fiction.
Verdict: 8/10

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