Published Oct 22, 2006

The US vs. John Lennon leaves a lot on the table. It could have been a thunderous call to call to action, a strong statement of a way in which we could follow in Lennon’s footsteps in today’s eerily similar times, but instead it was just a shrine to an artist. In that way, and in many others, it was truly a film for the political environment in which we live — intriguing, horrifying, demanding action, and ultimately empty of vigor.

The movie starts at the end of the Beatles’ run, and tells us of Lennon’s political awakening and first meeting with Yoko Ono. Typically, this is the tragic part of the story — the wondrous foursome is torn apart by the evil woman — but, in this take on the breakup, we see John choosing reasonably to become political (“if 100 million people listen to me say ‘I wanna hold your hand’, why shouldn’t 100 million people listen to me say ‘give peace a chance’?”), and Yoko being a big part of that growth as they both discovered new ways to express themselves through art. They talk, covered by a big paper bag; they hold their famous bed-in; it’s all good times.

And it’s moving times, too. We see protest, we see Kent State, we see photos of the war in Vietnam, and of course any reasonable person says “well, somebody should do something about that.” The movie expertly cuts down the power structure at the time, with a clearly unhinged G. Gordon Liddy describing the Nixon administration’s behavior, and juxtaposing the jowelly and obviously fascist speech of J. Edgar Hoover with the media-savvy rebel Angela Davis. The paralells with today are obvious, especially insofar as a paranoid, silent administration, overseeing an unpopular war, smears all who oppose it with the “unpatriotic” label.

But then it’s all lost. Lennon looks out of his depth next to Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. He can’t keep the difference between “policy” and “philosophy” straight, he says that others’ substantive goals are “what [he’s] been saying all along,” and he advocated arming yourself for self-defense. His drug-fueled lifestyle is glossed over but, hey, who doesn’t at least have to think for a moment when asked “should we let self-admitted junkies get green cards?”

The plot turns to Lennon’s fight with the INS, which had been instructed by the Nixon administration to get the singer out of the country. Now, this could have been a meaty section of the film, but too little time is spent on the conspiracy itself and too much on how John and Yoko felt about it. Nixon worried that Lennon would sing at a protest at the Republican National Convention in Miami in 1972, and this INS harassment did scare Lennon off of doing that, with Yoko worrying that he’d be killed if he went to Miami. But the only counterculture figure verifiably assassinated by the Nixon adminstration was Fred Hampton — that’s just one out of thousands of prominent individuals — and one wonders what Lennon would have chosen if he’d known he’d be killed for no good reason whatsoever eight years later.

After Lennon wins his court case against the INS and gets to stay in the US, the movie falls victim to French Director’s Disease — there’s no obvious way to end it, and it all just sputters away until the end credits run. We see home movies of John, Yoko, and Sean, we skip over Lennon’s famous “lost weekend,” there’s no discussion of his struggles with drugs, and everything’s all happy, sunny days until, suddenly, Mark David Chapman ruins it all. Then people with ’80s hairstyles cry.

The US vs. John Lennon could, perhaps, have been re-titled John Lennon vs. the US, a story of how this icon stood against the US for five years. Or, perhaps, it could have been titled John Lennon, 1968-1973, because that’s what it really was. If true accuracy was required Fun With Archival Footage, Final Cut Pro Filters, and Bad Compositing might be the most accurate title. The interviews are shot against green screen and then abstract backgrounds are badly composited in; black halos are visible everywhere. With the exception of some probably authentically-degraded 8mm home movies, all of the archival footage has had the “old footage” filter run on it, with scratches and lines crossing the screen. It’s all very E! True Hollywood Story in production values.

And, in the end, it leaves what could have been a passionate call to stand against a stupid modern war, just as the baby boomers stood against a stupid ’60s war, as just a good TV documentary, just a shrine to a beloved artist.

1 Comment

Hi Wade. You know how I feel, but I would like to comment on this later. Will you leave it up for a few days?