Written & Directed by: David Leaf & John Scheinfeld
Nostalgic in the worst of possible ways, The U.S. vs. John Lennon is yet another entry in the ongoing series of films that would function better as Wikipedia entries. Nothing more than a glorified VH1 special—the fact that it enjoyed a theatrical run is downright stupid—it’s a tired highlight reel of all the big events of the American 1960's (the Kent State massacre, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, etc.) set to the tune of John Lennon’s solo records. It's another pitifully disingenuous depiction of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, the kind that refers to that shallow fraud Abbie Hoffman as a “radical activist” and, by the way, doesn’t even acknowledge that G. Gordon Liddy, who holds a peculiarly prominent talking head position in the film, is a convicted felon.
One way the filmmakers attempt to compensate for their own vacuity is by providing ostentatious mangled photo collage backdrops for the interviewees, who were apparently interviewed in front of a green-screen; another is through gimmicky graphic effects. What am I, an idiot? An artfully edited collage of John Lennon interviews could have been interesting, even enlightening, but instead we’re offered a feature-length episode of “I Love the ‘60s; John Lennon Edition”, with the insufferable Michael Ian Black replaced by the, well, insufferable Geraldo Rivera. You'd be better off Netflixing the Dick Cavett interviews, readership.
The film’s ostensible purpose, to illuminate Lennon’s political career, is pretty thin and primarily covers a surprisingly brief period of his life, the early seventies. Lennon, near the end of his tenure as a Beatle, became politically energized and compelled to use his celebrity to speak out against the War. (That’s the Vietnam War.) The perpetually paranoid Richard Nixon saw him as a threat to his re-election, so consequently the US Government not only tried to deport him, but Hoover’s FBI began to spy-on and intimidate him, measures that now only reaffirm his position, to his fans (like the filmmakers), as the patron saint of rock n’ roll.
Wanting to have it both ways, the filmmakers try to present Lennon as both a radical activist/threat to Nixon’s political career as well as an innocuous artist just speakin' his mind. Jounralist Tariq Ali rightly chuckles on camera when asked if Lennon was a threat to the country, as it’s a notion as laughable as the film itself. But then hey Msr. Leaf & Scheinfeld, what was the first hour of your film about? Lennon was harassed because Nixon was a nut, not because he was changing the world and undermining the status quo; the movie concedes this, but then it doesn't. It’s a funny prank when John & Yoko give a press conference underneath a bag, but no one was taking that seriously, as in, "let's burn down the recruitment station and vote McGovern because a Beatle's wearing a sheet." I’ve got no beef with Lennon, but it’s impossible to take this movie as seriously as it takes itself. I admire him for trying to use his fame for good; he was an intelligent, charming and well-spoken rock star, as the clips in the film show, and I wish there were more like him. That doesn’t make him a Messiah or even a hero, so let’s not get hagiographic over it. John Lennon was far from perfect, something the film never even considers, as a musician, politician, and human being. The unwarranted attempts at apotheosis expose the film as a self-righteous baby-boomer celebration of themselves. Boy, those were the days, huh? Not like the kids today, I’ll tell you that. Well, I’d call and say thanks, guys, but George Bush has my phone tapped.