The U.S. vs. John Lennon
2006, PG-13, 99 min. Directed by David Leaf, John Scheinfeld.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 29, 2006
Keeping company with the memory of John Lennon is usually time well-spent, and this documentary, which focuses mostly on the years the former Beatle lived in New York, is no different. Yet, if you come to the film expecting to learn any new details about Lennon’s legacy or the Nixon administration’s near-comical attempts to deport the rock icon, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The U.S. vs. John Lennon uses old documentary footage and lots of talking heads to tell a story about the political ferment of the late Sixties and early Seventies and Lennon’s participation in the political fray. It will probably be eye-opening to younger audiences who were not weaned on this stuff, but to boomers, it will probably play like a VH1 Behind the Music episode, which is essentially what this documentary is, having been co-produced by the aforesaid music channel. Lennon’s image is further burnished by the active participation in this film of his widow Yoko Ono, and all the messier aspects of Lennon’s life during this period (drug use, marital infidelity, and political naivete) are barely mentioned, if at all. Some reference is made to the viewpoint that Lennon was used as a tool by more savvy political operatives of the time: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and the Black Panthers. The cast of talking heads paying tribute to the Lennon legacy or providing insight about the time range from Walter Cronkite to Geraldo Rivera, Angela Davis to G. Gordon Liddy, George McGovern to Bobby Seale, and Gore Vidal to Noam Chomsky. (One of the growing questions about this decade of documentary filmmaking is whether a film can legitimize its lefty credentials without including comments by standard-bearer Chomsky.) The first half of The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a historical review of the post-Beatles Lennon and the public artworks for peace he and his new bride fashioned to goad the already-captive media circus that was consumed with their lives. The latter half explores the efforts of Nixon, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Sen. Strom Thurmond to expel the British upstart from their shores. Passing comparisons are made between their clumsy tactics and the current-day PATRIOT Act surveillance allowances, but comparisons between the rising tide of opinion against U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the present war in Iraq are mostly left unspoken. The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a refresher course in the perils of celebrity and activism, but its syllabus and insights are purely remedial.