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Elvis & Nixon’ struggles with its thin premise

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Alex Pettyfer in Elvis & Nixon.

Two and a half stars

Elvis & Nixon Michael Shannon, Alex Pettyfer, Kevin Spacey. Directed by Liza Johnson. Rated R. Opens Friday in select theaters.

As Elvis & Nixon notes in a closing title card, the 1970 photograph of Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon shaking hands in the Oval Office is the most requested image in the National Archives, so it’s no surprise that someone decided to make a movie about it. Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon is actually the second movie about the unlikely encounter (following 1997’s Showtime mockumentary Elvis Meets Nixon), but it still struggles to fill in the necessary gaps around the bare-bones facts. Johnson and the three screenwriters choose to focus on the loneliness of Elvis, fawned over but misunderstood by the public and fixated on the idea of becoming an undercover government agent.

As played by Michael Shannon (a boldly unconventional choice), the movie’s Elvis is a sheltered man-child who enlists his longtime pal Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) in his quixotic plan to get the president to deputize him. The movie spends less time on its buffoonish version of Nixon (Kevin Spacey), but the comedic mismatch is more entertaining than the ostensibly touching moments between Elvis and Jerry (or the subplot about Jerry’s efforts to get home to his girlfriend). The entire encounter amounts to little more than the famous photo, and the story behind it was perhaps better left to mystery.

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