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‘Elvis & Nixon’ And The Delightful Badge Quest (Movie Review)

elvis and nixon thumbCasting really is everything sometimes. Whether playing an original creation or a fictional character, getting the right actor in the role will lead to an ultimate response from the audiences watching. I’m not sure Michael Shannon would have ever crossed my mind when it comes to casting Elvis Presley, but along with a game Kevin Spacey as President Nixon, a film depicting the meeting of these characters probably could not have gone better.

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Elvis & Nixon is really just that, a story about the time the King of Rock and Roll met the President of the United States. There is a picture and some records about Elvis randomly showing up at the White House, hoping to be sworn in as a federal agent at large, but this film is a well-meaning comedy that dramatizes all the events and circumstances around this moment in history. Helping flesh out this story is the presence of various assistants to the President (Colin Hanks and Evan Peters) and friends/handlers of Elvis (Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville).

While there are attempts to add some dramatic weight to Pettyfer’s role as Jerry Schilling, the movie is most effective in allowing Shannon to channel his weird energy into his interpretation of Elvis. Standing tall, donning the various clothing and accessaries (and weaponry) that he does and always ready to show off his karate moves, Elvis is still quite passive in the way he speaks to others. He is not above acknowledging his own self worth by putting himself above others, but it never comes off as mean. Granted, Elvis’ is on somewhat of a foolhardy mission, but the population’s love for him mostly allows him to do and say what he pleases.

If the movie was a product from a traditional studio feature, I would wonder how far this film’s loose energy surrounding Elvis would go over, but given how small scale Elvis & Nixon is in terms of the story’s scope and the film’s budget, it’s hard not to see the winning charm this film clearly has. Director Liza Johnson and writers Joey & Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes seem to have a good handle on what they wanted to do for this film. Despite a somewhat over reliance on grounding the film in reality based around Jerry, rather than letting us stay inside the mind of Elvis, the film still gets in and out fairly quickly, with two central performances providing plenty of smile-worthy moments, let alone good chuckles.

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And how about Spacey as Nixon? Well, if you’ve watched House of Cards or have simply seen Spacey be both intimidating and comedic, that is what you get here. Fortunately, that works very well. While Spacey may not look any closer to Nixon than John Cusack in Lee DanielsLee Daniels’ The Butler or Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, the comedic variation seen this time around is fun to watch. The attitude you would expect from this sort of character in a film like this is a fitting counter to what Shannon is doing and by the time you get to the climactic battle talk between these two, it really hits all the delightful beats you would hope for.

There is part of me that wondered if this film ever wanted to go deeper. The whole purpose of Elvis absconding to Washington D.C. is due to his belief that the youth of the nation have been corrupted by drugs and negative influences. It leads to some funny interactions with Nixon and Tracy Letts as someone close to the head of the DEA, who admire Elvis’ drive to help but are awkwardly unprepared to qualify the man for a badge and undercover agent status. Still, the film seems to just leave that as a goal with little to actually say about the importance of Elvis’ agenda.

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The same can be said about Nixon, who is treated as a guy that could use some popular press. There is maybe something admirable about the film not necessarily promoting a correct way for important people to act and just letting them be, but at the same time, corruption in the Nixon administration is treated somewhat like a joke and is mentioned so briefly that the Nixon in this film will be mainly regarded as an overworked dad who took an opportunity to impress one of his daughters.

This is all minor stuff though. Elvis & Nixon is thoroughly entertaining for being as simple as it is and not taking too much time to get to the point. The key performances are quite strong and allow for a good amount of humor to get through in the process. A strong argument is made to see Shannon embrace more roles that allow him to play it loose and we even get a decent performance from Pettyfer. There’s no question that Spacey is good, but the film is wise to hold back from featuring him too much. Enjoy what you do get though, along with the rest of the film, as it was made to charm.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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