The U.S. vs. John Lennon serves two useful purposes: to collect some of the Beatle's wittiest social barbs, and to inform a young audience about an interesting, volatile, and instructive collision of governmental clout and influential celebrity in the early '70s. As nostalgic haze threatens to trap the Beatles in amber, directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld helpfully remind us of the subversive simplicity of the messages once proclaimed by the late Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono: "Give Peace a Chance" and "WAR IS OVER...if you want it."
Lennon and Ono delivered their mottos with appealing inventiveness and unabashed childish energy. Releasing songs, staging cheeky performance-art events ("bag-ins" and "bed-ins"), and even endeavoring to wallpaper the globe, the lovers followed their muse and their conscience. Meanwhile, a nervously shifty establishment headed up by Nixon, Hoover, and Strom Thurmond took notice, authorizing wiretaps and pressuring immigration officials to begin deportation proceedings against the New York-based couple.
The filmmakers err on the side of the uninformed, explaining at length topics from History 101: Nixon's rise, Vietnam, and the Black Panthers. These passages frustratingly distend a picture that, in any case, could use a more distinct shape. In crafting a historic political film that nevertheless carries a conspicuously modern subtext (Gore Vidal explicitly compares Nixon to Bush and Vietnam to Iraq), Leaf and Scheinfeld are not alone. Luckily, they have a superstar and his music to compensate for a paucity of fresh revelation.
The imprimatur of pop music authority Leaf will especially please Beatlemaniacs; indeed, Leaf and Scheinfeld evince uncritical affection for Lennon as both artist and anti-establishment crusader. Lennon comes alive in extensive excerpts from his Beatle-era press conferences and later American talk-show appearances with Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett, and the like. The clips also demonstrate Lennon's unendearing tendency to give Ono a front-and-center position, only to blow past her occasional attempts to interject.
Though Lennon can be mercilessly sharp-tongued, his voice remains—as sampled by Leaf and Scheinfeld—lightning-quick in its humor, dazzlingly skillful at working the press on his own terms, and refreshingly straight-forward ("I'm an artist first, and a politician second"). Knowing that the press would never stop handing him lemons, Lennon opened the world's biggest lemonade stand. Lennon's all-too-accurate fallback line was "I've been in trouble all my life," a comment that Ono contextualizes by pointing out that John lived with one foot ever-planted in his alienating childhood.
G. Gordon Liddy, proudly wearing his black hat, raises the lone dissenting voice among a choir of proud, prominent Lennonites from the worlds of politics (Mario Cuomo, Angela Davis, John Dean, George McGovern, Bobby Seale, Ron Kovic) and media (Walter Cronkite, Carl Bernstein, Noam Chomsky, Geraldo Rivera, David Peel, Paul Krassner, and a hilariously deadpan Felix Dennis). Delivering thoughtfully pithy context and refusing to suffer political foolishness, go-to provocateur Vidal once again pulls none of his pundit punches.
Little of the film's running time goes toward detailing the surveillance of Lennon, proven in documents released under the Freedom of Information Act and confessed on camera by Dean (Jon Wiener lends legwork from his book Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files). The history of Lennon's immigration battle is better served, thanks in large part to the insight of John and Yoko's immigration attorney Leon Wildes. Ono's own comments are mostly unrevealing, but she gives the film a genuine emotional climax in summation of Lennon's influence, undimmed by his assassination at the age of forty.