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The U.S. Vs. John Lennon

You Say You Want a Revolution

By now, it’s hardly breaking news that the FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover and at the behest of the Nixon administration, kept a running file on John Lennon, the legendary Beatle who aroused the ire of the government by suggesting that peace might be preferable to a senseless war in Vietnam. (The nerve of those meddlesome Brits!) The U.S. Vs. John Lennon documents the trials and tribulations suffered by Lennon and Yoko Ono -- the tapped phones, the near-constant surveillance and, ultimately, the threat of deportation.

It also makes a convincing case that Lennon was smarter and infinitely more compassionate than Nixon’s hired goons, but where’s the challenge in that? You might as well argue that a steady diet of McDonald’s will make you fat. (Of course, they made a movie about that, too.) Directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s new documentary plays like a long-format love letter to the slain singer, and perhaps such unadulterated reverence was a prerequisite for Ono’s seal of approval. (Thanks to her, the duo had access to a wealth of private footage, which they put to good use.)

But it’s not hard to paint Lennon as an idealistic victim, persecuted by a regime that represented, as Gore Vidal puts it, “death.” One of the most adored figures of his time, Lennon had an easy charm: He was smart, well-spoken and seemingly genuine, and it didn’t hurt that he could carry a tune. He parlayed those talents into unparalleled celebrity then used his celebrity to change the world.

But did he? The U.S. Vs. John Lennon seems to think so. It offers a series of sometimes informative testimonials to the late singer by Ono, Vidal and talking heads like Noam Chomsky, Walter Cronkite and even Geraldo Rivera, most of whom praise Lennon as the only man capable of uniting a nation of anti-war activists with the simple beauty of his music. (Only G. Gordon Liddy, one of Nixon’s unrepentant thugs, who served time for his role in the amateurish Watergate break-in, provides any real counterpoint, but it doesn’t help that he comes across as a dogmatic buffoon.)

Whether Lennon affected any real sociopolitical change is debatable, but it’s clear that he was enough of a threat to intimidate a presidential administration riddled with paranoia. When thousands of protesters descended upon the White House, they implored Nixon to “give peace a chance.” When imprisoned political activist John Sinclair’s bid for parole was denied, Lennon took his cause to the airwaves, and within days Sinclair was free. In the end, what’s clear is that Lennon was a charismatic figure who masterfully manipulated the media (even with silliness like week-long bed-ins) to get his message across.

More than anything, The U.S. Vs. John Lennon succeeds in presenting him as a man of nerve and uncommon principle in a time of conflict. It’s entertaining enough and the soundtrack is terrific, but did we really need a movie to tell us that?

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars