The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006) dir. David Leaf & John Scheinfeld
“The U.S. vs. John Lennon” tells the story of John Lennon’s controversial activism for peace during the tumultuous late 60’s and early 70’s. Though the subject is the former Beatle, the film uses John Lennon as the entry point to tell the larger story of anti-war activism during the Vietnam War. Though the film is polished and comprehensive it doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t already know about the anti-war movement or the Lennon the man.
As he mentions in a press scrum outside one of his Immigration hearings, “he had a face that people didn’t like”. In fact, John Lennon has stirred up controversy his entire life. In Lennon’s own words we hear him talk about his working class background in Liverpool which begat his hatred of oppression and contempt for authority. When he was a Beatle he was much beloved for his music, but his infamous statement about being bigger than Jesus revealed his anti-establishment personality for which he would later become more famous.
The film tracks John’s rise from Beatle to political activist and his lengthy battle against deportation by the Department of Immigration. From the government’s point of view, it makes sense, why should John Lennon, who isn’t American and only recently moved to America, be allowed to criticize a government that’s not his. Lennon used the media and his pop star celebrity to his advantage? He befriended them and allowed them into his home, which mutually benefited both parties.
The film gets all the right people to appear on camera, Yoko is there, so are activists Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Bobby Seale, journalists, Carl Bernstein and Walter Chronkite and Nixon-era politicians G. Gordon Liddy, John Dean and George McGovern. These are all great people which give the film its credibility, but no Paul McCartney? no Ringo Starr? Unfortunately the film becomes just a factual rundown of 1966-1980. There’s no deep analysis or discoveries into Lennon the man, just a surface summary which could have been provided by an A&E Biography. The film’s narrative, other than building up to his assassination in 1980, climaxes with Lennon getting his green card. It’s not very exciting and in fact, is an anti-climax.
The filmmakers use the glossiest and slickest visualization techniques available today. HD cameras shoot the interviewees against creative backgrounds and 3-D still photography enhancement (a la “The Kid Stays in the Picture”) allow standard photographs to dynamically pop out of the screen. It’s beautiful to look at, but in the end it’s style over substance.
For such an important man who left a valued creative and political legacy, the film is too shallow to challenge our minds. It's a ‘puff-piece’. I’m waiting for the filmmaker who can get Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, or Julian Lennon to talk about the side of John Lennon we’ve never seen. But at the very least there some great music to enjoy.
Buy it here: The U.S. vs. John Lennon