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. "Elvis Presley decided his country needed him," deadpans a title card, and the film then tracks, with snickering distance, his December, 1971 efforts to arrange a meeting with 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 resplendently collared King might be a magnet on your refrigerator. Liza Johnson's film, nudged along by ersatz "Green Onions" 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 prostheses, makes a fine sketch-comedy Nixon, and Michael Shannon, while lacking the beefy handsomeness the part demands, insists upon playing Elvis as a person, 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: Elvis performs 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?