Star Rating:

Elvis and Nixon

Director: Liza Johnson

Actors: Michael Shannon, Alex Pettyfer

Release Date: Friday 24th June 2016

Genre(s): Factual

Running time: 86 minutes

It's unlikely that a film based on a famous photograph of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon would be any way interesting, but this frothy caper comedy with strong performances by Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey more than makes up for the weak premise surrounding it.

There's been countless iterations of both Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon in popular culture. Frank Langella in Frost / Nixon, Kurt Russell in John Carpenter's lost TV miniseries, even Futurama managed to turn Nixon in a character - complete with Spiro Agnew's headless body. With all these memorable portrayals, it's a wonder why anyone would want to take on both characters in a single film. For better or worse, Liza Johnson's first mainstream effort is determined to work its way into screen with just the right amount of humour.

The film opens with Michael Shannon's Elvis in Graceland, watching the decline of Western civilisation via his numerous televisions when - out of nowhere - he resolves to become an undercover Federal Agent-At-Large and aid America in its hour of need. Meanwhile, President Nixon, played by Kevin Spacey, is seated in his inscrutable seat of power in the White House and growling at the negative press he's been receiving. On a whim, Elvis decides to depart for Washington DC and manages to rope in a former member of his entourage, Alex Pettyfer, for the ride. Whilst in DC, Pettyfer's lackey makes contact with the White House - in the form of Colin Hanks and Evan Peters, lickspittles to Spacey's Nixon.

For much of the first half of the film, it's very much Michael Shannon tooling around with the character. Instead of going for the obvious caricature, Shannon rightly pulls back on the obvious markers for the character and almost underplays him. It's fascinating to watch and to see one of the best character actors working today to get to grips with one of the most recognisable figures of the twentieth century. There's a sense that this Elvis is much more introspective and closed off than has ever been seen on screen, with Shannon giving him a real sense of pathos. For all that, there's a lot of humour in his performance and it's clear that Shannon is having a ball with it.

Spacey, meanwhile, has pitch-perfect timing and is up there with Futurama's Nixon for comedic value. His brunt, foul-mouthed response to the initial meeting is one of the biggest laughs in the film and appears at various points throughout the film to give everyone a chuckle. By the time the two meet, it's clear that the film is circling in towards the finale. While the film hinges on the central performances of these two, Colin Hanks and Evan Peters both bounce ably off one another as two nerds who are huge Elvis fans trying to get their boss on board and excited. The opposite number to these two - the aforementioned Pettyfer and an oddly-cast Johnny Knoxville - frankly don't measure up to Hanks and Peters. Alex Pettyfer has absolutely zero depth in his performance and you get the sense that if a better actor was given his lines, he'd have made more of them. Knoxville, meanwhile, only turns up for a scene or two as little more than scenery.

Liza Johnson's direction isn't particularly flashy, but she has an excellent eye for pacing and placing a camera to get the most out of a comedic scene. For a director who hasn't worked on a comedy before, she's a dab hand at allowing a scene to move and breathe with the script. There's a lot to like about Elvis and Nixon, and the soundtrack is pretty great too, but you can't shake the feeling that there's something slightly pointless about the whole thing. We don't really see a different side of either character, except for the fact that they're both surprisingly similar underneath their trappings. Both Shannon and Spacey treat their characters and the script with a due amount of respect and can allow themselves to slip into the obvious excesses of the characters every now and then, but that's about it really.

Just shy of 90 minutes, Elvis and Nixon is a snappy little comedy with two great performances and a lot of fun to be had.