Elvis Presley once watched Dr. Strangelove three times in one night at a Memphis movie theater. After that, he made them play the last reel several more times, marveling at it. It's fascinating to wonder about: Here's this country's biggest musical star, the leading man in movies he knew were garbage, a dreamy-sweet mama's boy but also the embodiment of teen horniness, making a study of this bleakest of comedies. The 1960s were spread out before him like some great gilded belt for him to notch with his conquests — so what exactly in Kubrick's apocalypse so resonated with him?
That year, 1964, would of course see the dawn of Elvis' own end-times: The Beatles hitting Ed Sullivan. At the decade's bitter end, hungry for a comeback, Elvis again sat enthralled at a Kubrick picture. The grand, chilly abstractions of 2001 must have moved him, as he eventually adopted the film's bombastic theme into his act. What did he make of Kubrick's visions of apes and men shedding their past selves at moments of evolutionary transcendence? Did he dream of an Elvis Beyond the Infinite — or did he just think, “Man, that Strauss bit would sound killer when I walk onstage and tear into 'See See Rider'?”
What Elvis thought — who Elvis was — remains one of the great American mysteries. The strained, sour comedy Elvis & Nixon offers up the simplest of answers: He was a clown. In an early scene, we see the King briefly eye Dr. Strangelove on the screen bank in Graceland's TV room. Moments later, he's shot one of the sets and headed out on his adventure. Why? Who knows? “Elvis Presley decided his country needed him,” deadpans a title card at the start, and the film then tracks, with snickering distance, his December 1971 efforts to arrange a meeting with then-president Richard Nixon — and to offer himself as some sort of undercover narc.
All that really happened, of course, and the famous photo of Tricky Dick shaking hands with a magnificently collared King might be a magnet on your refrigerator. Liza Johnson's film, nudged along by ersatz “Green Onions” funky riffing, is itself a sort of souvenir tchotchke, a product whose only clear goal is getting the two men in the room so we can giggle: at the president's awkwardness and grievance-airing, at the singer's polite bad manners, at the ways that the men connect, a little, by hating on The Beatles.
Kevin Spacey, bejowled in prosthetics, makes a fine sketch-comedy Nixon, and Michael Shannon, while lacking the beefy handsomeness the part demands, insists upon playing Elvis as a character, honoring his tender neediness, his swaggering enthusiasm, the way his titanic self-regard edged into existential doubt. But Shannon's more interested in Elvis than the filmmakers are. They never bother engaging with why Elvis arranged this meeting. They just invite us to giggle that he did. They even strain credulity in the big moments: The photo of this get-together has inspired wonder for decades, but rather than trust that these personalities are enough to engage us, the screenwriters — there are three — have Elvis performing feats of karate for Nixon, his fists coming just inches from the president's face. What God-fearing, flag-loving Southern boy would pull that stunt?
Business here is not taken care of. Elvis & Nixon shows us Elvis asking DEA functionaries to become a federal agent at large, specializing in narcotics stings, but it omits Elvis' abuse of prescription drugs, which certainly could have contributed to this particular mania. It shows us Elvis, in his full shades-and-jewelry getup, claiming he's actually a regular Joe named Burroughs, but it never asks what might have gone so wrong inside this man that he could believe such a ruse could work. (The glasses have “EP” engraved in them!) It shows us Elvis and the president griping about Woodstock, but it never examines, in any meaningful way, how, by '71, Elvis was stranded in some netherland between the rock & rollers and Nixon's own silent majority. The story is comic, yes, but it's also tragic: Here is a man who had lost his culture — and maybe even himself — reaching out for help to the president, himself a man too lost in hatred to help anyone.
Occasionally, when given a little room to breathe, Shannon suggests that story. A fear haunts this Elvis' eyes; a weariness grips his soul. Shannon twice gets out-of-nowhere monologues that suggest that one of the writers must have thought Elvis is worth thinking about: The first, a little beauty, has the King considering the way that everybody sees him as a thing rather than a man. Shannon underplays it, but still wrings it for all the feeling it’s worth. Too bad, then, that the film fully commits to Elvis' thingness rather than his personhood, posing him in the Oval Office like a kung-fu-grip action figure.
The second speech, about the twin of Elvis' who died in childbirth, comes just before the singer at last meets the president — and its placement baffles. It's nice he's finally thinking about something, but why this, now? And why is he bathed from below in red light, apparently cast by that bouquet of West Wing roses? There's also a dreary subplot in which Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) — of the group of pals, handlers and hangers-on known as the Memphis Mafia — teaches Elvis that there's no need to buy friendship. Outside of Shannon's performance, Elvis & Nixon is enough to make you long for the nuance of Kissin' Cousins.