This we know: On December 21, 1970, Elvis Presley showed up bright and early at the White House gates, delivering a barely legible note he'd scrawled on American Airlines stationery to President Richard Nixon. He said he'd love to come by and meet the president, and that he was also seeking a badge to be a federal agent, so he could help combat the drug culture and the "hippie elements" ruining the country.
And though the initial reaction of Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, was "You must be kidding" — scrawled in the margins of a memo — that meeting did take place, hours later. It led to an awkward Oval Office photo that the National Archives says is its most requested image, more than even man walking on the moon — which probably was a more predictable sight than Elvis Presley standing next to Nixon.
What exactly did the two men discuss? No transcript exists, just a memo describing it. That's where "Elvis & Nixon" comes in, filling in the blanks in a dramatization of what has to be one of the odder White House encounters on record.
What the movie, directed by Liza Johnson, lacks in factual material it replaces with whimsy and quirky humor, helped greatly by the casting of Michael Shannon as Presley and Kevin Spacey as Nixon. The problem is that other than the meeting, which is fascinating indeed, there's not much of a story. We hear a lot about the quest of Presley's good friend, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) to get back to Los Angeles and see his girlfriend. It's not clear why we need to know all this. It certainly bogs down the proceedings.
We begin with Nixon's aides proposing the meeting to their skeptical, cranky boss. "Who the (expletive) set this up?" Nixon asks.
Flashback to 36 hours earlier. Presley is watching news footage at home in Tennessee, and doesn't like what he sees. He takes out a gun and shoots the TV set to smithereens.
Soon enough, he's on his way to Washington, via Los Angeles. En route, there's an amusing scene where some Elvis impersonators approach him in an airport lounge. They think he's one of them, and want to compare notes.
Speaking of impersonation: Both Presley and Nixon are such larger-than-life characters that any actor playing them seems likely to teeter on the precipice of mimicry. Shannon, a terrific actor whose features don't resemble Presley's at all, does a nice job of avoiding the cartoonish, finding a way to explore the essence of his character, physically and vocally. And Spacey, who by the way is one of our finest impressionists, avoids mocking; he's quite funny as a grumpy, profane man who is deeply uncomfortable in his skin.
Presented with Presley's childishly scrawled note, Nixon's young aides like the idea of their very square boss engaging with a pop legend — good for the youth vote. Haldeman (Tate Donovan) reluctantly approves. Nixon at first objects — it's his nap hour! — but then the aides enlist his beloved daughter Julie, who wants a signed photo.
And so Elvis turns up in his black cape-like suit and huge gold belt buckle — and loaded with his prized handguns. Once disarmed, he's ushered in, with strict instructions not to touch the president's M&Ms or his Dr. Pepper. He ignores both. "You got a bottle opener?" he asks.
And so this fascinating encounter goes, combining things we know happened (the photo, the hug Elvis offers) with things we don't (did Elvis really demonstrate karate?)
By the way, Presley gets his official agent badge that very day, from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. (Actor-playwright Tracy Letts has a truly fabulous cameo as the stunned official who issues it.) Fiction? Nope.
As Haldeman said so succinctly: You must be kidding.
What: "Elvis & Nixon." Directed by Liza Johnson. An Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street release
With: Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Tate Donovan
Star rating (out of four): •
MPAA rating: R — restricted; under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian — "for some language"
Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes
Playing at: Images Cinema (Williamstown)