The U.S. vs. John Lennon Review
by Barry Wurst
September 29, 2006
One of the opening logos for this documentary is that of VH1 "Rock Docs," and it doesn't take long to see why. Initially, with its slick graphics and commercial-ready pauses in between time periods, this feels like something you can see on VH1's "Behind the Music". Yet the glossy approach dials down and the film takes hold, resulting in a powerful, strikingly relevant look at how the government kept tabs on John Lennon, ex-Beatle, flower power advocate, peace monger and the last man on earth anyone else would've considered a major threat.
The selection of talking heads to tell the story is remarkable: in addition to the obvious (Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono and some close chums), you have Bobby Seale (one of the co-founders of the Black Panthers), Angela Davis, G. Gordan Liddy, Walter Cronkite, Gore Vidal, and a cluster of others who rarely give interviews, let alone appear on film. The one flaw in this approach is the dishonest inclusion of Ono - she's introduced as Lennon's girlfriend and shown lovingly in old footage and for the documentary's interviews. No mention is ever made that this is, after all, the woman who broke up The Beatles, the most important and lyrically significant band of the 20th century (sorry Nirvana fans!), who were creating music that was revolutionary and socially relevant without her input. Oh well, she makes for some good sound bites.
The similarities of the era depicted and today are quite scary. A lot is shown of a time when the government was making "necessary" wire tappings, conservatives and liberals were up in arms, a controversial war was separating people and protests and chaos spread worldwide. Sound familiar? Lennon protested against the Vietnam war by advocating non-violent protests, one of which was a "bed-in," where he wouldn't leave his bed until the peace reigned in the world. One of Lennon's friends, comedian Tom Smothers, points out how this was among one of Lennon's "naive" but "genius" Gandhi-like efforts to make a difference.
If you hate Lennon and have a soft spot for the Nixon administration, you'll likely walk out of this before the hour mark. If you're a fan of Lennon, it's impossible not to be moved by his wonderful music (there are tons of his songs on the soundtrack) and his ample verbal wit (funniest sound bite of the year: a reporter asks Lennon his thoughts on those who oppose them, Lennon's response: "Well, it's like they say, time wounds all heals."). This is just a chapter (albeit a pivotal one) of Lennon's remarkable artistic career. A definitive exploration of his life has yet to be made. That said, this is an eye-opener and a moving film. Lennon has been gone for almost as long as I've been alive, yet, there was hardly a dry eye in the house and I heard a handful of audience members weeping as they strolled out of the theater.
Only Gore Vidal makes a stabbing sound bite against the current administration, and it's the only time the film does more than imply visually the parallels between one era's of strife to another. Lennon's controversial opposing views, verbal criticisms of the American government and pacifistic efforts to help during war time are quite similar to that of Sean Penn, who likely will get his own "The U.S. vs" documentary in a few years.