The U.S. vs John Lennon
by Andrew James
Of course I could be wrong about that, but it sure seemed that way anyway. Although there is no narrator, it is a series of clips from interviews of various political, musical and artistic pundits all spliced together with Beatles and John Lennon tunes ethereally playing in the background, along with various images of the 1960's. Each of the interviewees have a topical background of pictures or words placed behind them at an angle to give the exact same feel as a VH1 special. On top of all this, there are obvious places where there should be commercial breaks.
But the deal is, that's not really a bad thing. It provides interesting commentary and insight into one of the 20th century's greatest, intellectual artists. The U.S. vs John Lennon is marketed as a documentary about how the United States government treated John Lennon as a threat to the power of the Nixon administration in the late 60s and 70s. I hadn't heard the story before and it was quite a resounding testimony as to what a government can be capable of if it feels as though it is being threatened by a polarizing force; in this case John Lennon of The Beatles.
My problem with the film is really two fold. Number one, and most importantly, it took almost an hour for the "story" to begin. Why I thought I was in the theater did not begin to take shape until after an extensive history lesson, that anyone who's been through junior high, already knows. I always enjoy footage from peace rallies and speeches and what-not given in the 60's and 70's, but I've seen it all before. I know all about the Vietnam war and all about the flower power movement and the big rally at the reflecting pool in D.C. I've seen the footage of the killings at Kent State. I didn't need to be given a history lesson of the 15 years before I was born.
I do feel that some history and background should be pointed out to the audience to put us into a certain mind set and remind us of the culture and times of what is being discussed, but I don't feel it needed to take an hour. Twenty minutes would have sufficed.
The second thing I didn't like, was that it was very obviously geared (and skewed in a couple small places) towards a target audience: democrats. My political beliefs not withstanding, it felt like a film preaching. The problem is, it's preaching to the choir. Most of the interviewees and clips are straight up facts and even some insight into the social climate and policies of the time. I appreciated this fact. Some may not appreciate the obvious bashing (only by select people) of current government and religion that was not based on fact, but by emotion. Gore Vidal's "Mr. Bush sings of death," was the last statement of the entire film before the epilogue. I felt it was an unfair, personal attack; but most importantly it had nothing to do with (at least on the surface) the rest of the film! The reason I know it was preching to the choir, was because this statement evoked a near thunderous applause from the audience I was sitting among.
All of this is not to say that the documentary doesn't have plenty of merits. Most obvious and striking, is the archival footage that has been dug up; most of which I (or anybody else in most cases) had never seen before. It provided a looking glass view of Lennon's life post Beatles, during his struggle for peace and a war of words with the press. This footage is so telling and inspirational that it's easy to be sucked into the world and thoughts of Lennon and Yoko Ono. Specifically, footage of their peace in bed protest and appearances as guests on various talk shows.
Once the meat of the subject matter begins to take shape it was fascinating to watch and learn of Nixon's apparent nervousness of Lennon's radical activism. The when and whys are all explained in depth by those who were there. The lengths the government went to in order to silence Lennon were intriguing and astonishing.
Plus it's got an obviously brilliant soundtrack. Since the songs are all Lennon's and express his feelings and thoughts at any given time, each tune represents well the tone and point of the moment in the "story" of which we are in.
As somewhat of a fan of Lennon, I found the film to be mostly enjoyable with the footage and antics of Lennon's character. He's an interesting and charismatic icon that helped to mold decades and we get to see plenty of his face and ideals expressed. I also gained insight into some history of a time period I have great interest in and I had mostly an enjoyable experience. But with the small production quality and some questionable personalities (both on the left and right of the political spectrum) dishing out their opinions on the matter, I can't help but wish I had just stayed at home and watched this on cable. I'm not sorry I saw it, it just would've been more comfortable and agreeable had I been lounging on my couch for the viewing.
IMDb.com - full cast and crew
Official Site - includes trailer and goodies
FLIXSTER PROFILE for The U.S. vs John Lennon