Michael Shannon (left) stars as Elvis Presley and Kevin Spacey (right) stars as President Richard Nixon in Liza Johnson's Elvis & Nixon, a Bleecker Street release. Photo Credit: Steve Dietl.

Michael Shannon (left) stars as Elvis Presley and Kevin Spacey (right) stars as President Richard Nixon in Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon, a Bleecker Street release. Photo Credit: Steve Dietl.

Imagine some memorable encounters with a U.S. President — Richard Milhous Nixon to be exact. Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev might come to mind. It was the Cold War, after all, so they had to meet from time to time. Nixon and Henry Kissinger?—they were the best of buddies. But Nixon and Elvis Presley…? The King of rock and roll and the one U.S. President who surely wrote the book on “square” meeting face to face? You better believe it, because in December of 1970 it really did happen. And in Lisa Johnson’s new film Elvis & Nixon, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 18, we are treated to a re-imagining of just how hysterical such a meeting might have been.

For starters, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) is portrayed as a brooding, slightly-over-the-hill megastar, weary of what the world has become. Back in the comfort of his Graceland Mansion den, watching one too many TV images of Timothy Leary exhorting parents to smoke pot with their kids, he smashes the screen in. Rounding up a couple of his most faithful buddies, he decides to be deputized by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD). As a “Federal Agent at Large,” Elvis is certain he can infiltrate everyone from the Beatles to the Black Panthers in order to expose their evil Communist plots. Of course, there is no such title, as we soon find out when Elvis actually shows up at the Bureau and is introduced to a deputy head honcho. The man is as nonplussed in the King’s presence as his own female staff. A minor role in almost anyone else’s hands, but Tracy Letts, a consummate stage actor and playwright, plays it with a stuttering mastery.

Well, Elvis is hardly used to taking no for an answer and only an in-the-flesh encounter with the President himself will do. He convinces his chief sidekick Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) to accompany him on his mission impossible — and the race to the White House is on. If there’s any question about how indelible such a meeting became in the public’s consciousness, just consider this: the picture that resides in the National Archives of Elvis and Nixon chumming it up with one another is the most requested image of all time.

As Schilling, actor Alex Pettyfer shows us just how conflicted a good friend can be when the most famous entertainer on earth comes a calling. We can feel his pain in the face of Elvis’ demands. In fact, Jerry is probably the most important individual in Elvis’ life next to the King’s pistol, Lucille — lovingly attached to the star’s ankle at all times. Michael Shannon as Elvis is a very serious theatre and TV actor and he knows how to play a man at the end of his rope. (No better example of desperation incarnate was his portrayal of federal agent Nelson Van Alden in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.) Confessing how he’s “become a thing, no better than a bottle of Coke,” we believe him. But when he’s camping it up in true finger-snapping Elvis style, it’s a bit forced. His instincts are right but no matter how high the actor aims, he’s got some very tall boots to fill. We can congratulate him for making such a genuine effort, though whether die-hard fans of the King will buy the act is another story.

Kevin Spacey as Nixon, however, is spot-on perfect. He gets the gruff dismissal in the voice, the misplaced gesture, the almost simian-like lack of grace in every movement he makes. Tongue-in-cheek personification doesn’t get any better than this. We never forget we’re watching Spacey, but that’s okay because it is a satire, after all. We almost expect him to break out of the scene and let us in on the joke, which he does so well in Netflix’s hit House of Cards.

In the script written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes, the infamous encounter is a long-awaited affair. Even if we accept saving the best for last, we clamor for more. With that said, there’s a bittersweet mix of nostalgia, humor and buffoonery in watching all the machinations around the Oval Office as staff members do their best to control the President’s encounter with Elvis. With sight gags aplenty, Johnson’s direction manages to keep up a lively pace, aided in no small part by Ed Shearmur’s bluesy score. When the two super powers finally do meet over M&M’s and a couple of Dr. Peppers, it’s worth the wait.

It’s interesting to mark that the film’s end notes make it perfectly clear that no transcript of the meeting exists. We’ll never know if the screenwriters’ version was as eye-popping hilarious as the real life face-to-face encounter. Oh, if only to be a fly on the wall…

Rating: A-

Video courtesy of Movieclips Trailers.

“Elvis & Nixon” had its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. The R-rated film is currently playing in theaters nationwide.