Don’t let the overhyped paranoia of the documentary title The U.S. vs. John Lennon ruin your enjoyment of a winning biographical portrait.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon makes wonderful viewing not because it reinforces our already-abysmal assessment of Nixonian power abuse. And it succeeds despite gratuitous, ill-advised attempts to connect 1973 warmongering with the 2006 debate over Iraq.
The movie instead works by reminding us of Lennon’s best qualities: His impish, imperturbable sense of humor, his quick intelligence, his successful bantering with a hostile crush of world press mercenaries. The persecution of Lennon by U.S. immigration authorities, at the encouragement of Nixon’s vituperative White House enemies operation, is almost the least interesting thing about the film.
A good part of critiquing an ambitious documentary can involve telling what it leaves out: Along with proving not-so-Earth-shattering on the paranoia front, The U.S. vs. John Lennon ignores sordid details of the ex-Beatle’s personal life during the period.
The attractive love idyll represented as the marriage of John and Yoko, for example, might appear less seemly if directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld had described the “lost weekend” that interrupted Lennon’s immigration battle for 18 months. Lennon left Yoko and New York for an affair with the couple’s secretary, May Pang, partying with West Coast musical celebrities. He rejoined Yoko at his Central Park address just before the triumphant 1975 green-card celebration that is the documentary’s climax.
Most of The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a light recap of the celebrity-driven portion of the anti-Vietnam War movement; we don’t get to the White House tricks and the immigration battle until 66 minutes in. We get plenty of G. Gordon Liddy, slandering Lennon to this day (accusing him of being “manipulated” by devious protesters like Jerry Rubin, as if Liddy himself wasn’t full time into the manipulation business).
But delightfully, we get plenty of Lennon. Thoughtful and self-deprecating, Lennon knew full well his popular anti-war slogans and songs were simplistic. Give peace a chance. War is over, if you want it. He follows up with an irrefutable argument: The catchphrases worked, and besides, what’s wrong with good marketing on behalf of peace, for a change?
“We’re selling it like soap,” Lennon said. “You’ve got to sell it and sell it, until the housewife says, ‘Oh, there’s two products: War, or peace.”‘
A shrill-voiced Time reporter has the audacity to tell him, “You’ve made yourself ridiculous.” When Lennon smiles and says, “I don’t care” in that unmistakable Liverpudlian accent, you wish he were still here to thank.
It was Sen. Strom Thurmond, the racist South Carolina paragon of virtue (who in his youth fathered a daughter out of wedlock with his family’s African-American maid) who wrote letters encouraging a U.S. deportation of Lennon. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, another false paragon of virtue, worked with Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman to boot the Beatle.
Lennon tweaked those who wanted him out, standing under the Statue of Liberty and remarking, “I even brought my own cash.” When he finally wins his case, he is asked by a reporter if he holds any grudges.
Lennon, on the courthouse steps, smiles slyly at the cameras: There’s an old saying, he notes: “I believe time wounds all heels.”
Documentary skims surface of Lennon conspiracy28 02 2007