U.S. Versus John Lennon, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

As a snapshot of the U.S. cultural scene during the late 1960s and early 1970s, The U.S. Versus John Lennon is a success. As an opportunity to hear some of Lennon's solo songs within a political context, the movie works. Unfortunately, as a piece of investigative journalism designed to elaborate on the antagonism between Lennon and the Nixon administration, the film comes across as superficial and none-too-satisfying. Those hoping for something hard-hitting won't find it here. This is strictly on the level of what one might uncover during a VH1 special.

Co-directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld have done an excellent job of accumulating photos, news & concert footage, and archival interviews with Lennon to put together an interesting portrait of aspects of the social turmoil that convulsed this country during the Nixon administration, and the musician's role in it. Where The U.S. Versus John Lennon fails is in taking the next step. We understand that Nixon viewed Lennon as a threat, that the FBI tapped his phones, and that the INS tried to have him deported, but that's all the film offers on the subject. The talking head interviews - which feature names like Yoko Ono, Walter Cronkite, George McGovern, and G. Gordon Liddy - are largely uninformative and uninteresting. One would expect Lennon's widow at least to offer something more insightful than the bland observations provided. And if the assumption is that all of the film's evidence is common knowledge, why bother in the first place?

While the main thrust of The U.S. Versus John Lennon is to illustrate the consequences of Lennon falling afoul of Nixon's paranoia (and, ultimately, there weren't lasting impacts beyond the inconvenience of having to fight deportation), the filmmakers mention how the former Beatle was being used as a tool for the radical left. As a high-profile musician with an outspoken pacifist point-of-view, Lennon was easy prey for the likes of Jerry Rubin and Abie Hoffman, and they exploited his celebrity for all it was worth. Yet this is an avenue Leaf and Scheinfeld elect not to pursue. Once they raise the issue, they allow it to fade away.

The movie begins to follow Lennon around the time of his marriage to Yoko Ono, and is concerned primarily with his post-Beatles life. It traces his growing outspokenness against the Vietnam War and his public protests, such as "Bed Peace," in which he and Ono spent a week in bed in Amsterdam with their doors thrown wide to interviewers and cameras. "Make love, not war" was their motto and, although Lennon admitted that flower power didn't work, he didn't see that as an excuse to stop pushing for change. Strangely, although much of the movie concentrates on Lennon's efforts to stop the carnage in southeast Asia, little note is taken of the American troop withdrawal and the fall of Saigon is not mentioned. In addition, the film's attempts to draw parallels between the Nixon and Bush administrations is clumsily executed. It takes a comment by Gore Vidal to make the connection explicit.

The U.S. Versus John Lennon is a nice little documentary that provides a view of recent history for those who didn't live through it, or a nostalgia trip for those who did. However, as vehicle for presenting anything new or surprising, it fails. This is the kind of movie that might make for a pleasant two hours at home on the couch, but paying for a $10 admission ticket seems unwarranted considering what it offers.

U.S. Versus John Lennon, The (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2006-09-15
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1