The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006)
Starring: John Lennon [archival footage], Yoko Ono, Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Walter Cronkite, Mario Cuomo, Angela Davis, Ron Kovic, G. Gordon Liddy, George McGovern, Richard Nixon, Geraldo Rivera, Bobby Seale, Gore Vidal
Directed by: David Leaf and John Scheinfeld
Since I’m a bit of a fan of both documentaries and The Beatles, I was naturally interested in this movie when I first heard of it. Throw in some the-U.S.-government-up-to-no-good vibes, and I was hooked. I may have missed its short theatrical run, but made a point to check it out once it came out on DVD.
Directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, veterans in the celebrity-retrospective documentary field (former movies by the duo have featured Bette Midler, Bob Hope, and the Bee Gees), The U.S. vs. John Lennon looks at the life of the legendary singer as he transitioned from Beatle to activist, and how his political views put him at odds with the Nixon administration. The film tries to put his activism in perspective with the times that spawned it, and to reveal how the government attempted to silence Lennon via deportation for openly disagreeing with its Vietnam policies.
Sounds interesting, non? Sadly, while watching the movie, it becomes painfully apparent that Leaf and Scheinfeld are used to making celebrity-retrospective documentaries, as The U.S. vs. John Lennon comes off like a long episode of A&E’s Biography. It’s a standard talking-heads and archival footage documentary (albeit with an impressive array of talking heads), with a glowing account of the subject that stops just short of suggesting that John Lennon single-handedly ended the Vietnam conflict and caused world peace. The movie had a chance to be interesting, but instead ended up being a fairly empty piece of hero worship.
Worse, it was pretty boring. You’d think the retrospective on John Lennon’s transition years would’ve been enough to hold my attention, but it wasn’t. After hearing fawning description after fawning description of Lennon’s bed-ins and “Give Peace a Chance”, I kinda checked out. By the time the movie got to memos suggesting deportation to shut Lennon up being in Nixon’s hands, I barely cared anymore. I’m guessing the movie only got distribution because of the anti-government stance it ties in, which allows people like Noam Chomsky to compare Nixon to Bush and make everything relevant. But, the movie doesn’t focus tightly enough on the story implied in its title, and instead comes off as a general look at Lennon’s activism (without ever making its hero look like anything but right).
Basically, shave a third off of The U.S. vs. John Lennon, and it would be a decent-enough, even compelling, television documentary that would work as a VH1 Legends-type show (VH1 is one of the production companies for the movie) to watch on a lazy Sunday. But as a feature-length movie, it’s far too self-important to be relevant and far too dull to be interesting for anyone but true believers.