Yoko Ono approved this message.
So it should come as no surprise that “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” deifies her late husband for his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, which famously made him a target of the federal government’s scrutiny.
Ono provided documentary directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld with extensive footage and sat down with them to offer fresh recollections of the time, but it feels as if her cooperation resulted in a softened perspective on the musician-turned-activist-turned-icon.
Lennon comes off as a visionary leader at best and an idealistic marketing genius at worst.
“All we are saying is give peace a chance.” “War is over if you want it.” Catchy, succinct and easily digestible, like the best commercial jingles. (Even Lennon himself likened these pithy little nuggets to ads for soap, trying to persuade housewives to buy a certain brand.)
He was that direct and accessible early and often, though, so it’s not as if “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” ever could have shed much new light. It’s not as if Leaf and Scheinfeld have taken on a mysterious, elusive figure here.
Even though the film isn’t terribly revelatory about the man himself, interviews with everyone from Walter Cronkite to Geraldo Rivera, Mario Cuomo to Bobby Seale, George McGovern to G. Gordon Liddy do offer a thorough, vivid snapshot of this volatile period. And the use of some three dozen songs by Lennon and the Beatles place the film on an echelon above the average “Behind the Music” special on VH1. (The cable music channel, by the way, helped produce the film.)
“The U.S. vs. John Lennon” begins with an early example of him stirring things up when he proclaimed that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, then follows his transformation into an increasingly high-profile anti-war activist. His romance with Ono emboldens him further; she becomes both his muse and his microphone.
But the film fails to probe deeply into what drove her activism besides a performance artist’s need for attention, and she remains a superficial pop culture icon — a ubiquitous mound of hair, floppy hats and oversized sunglasses.
By now we know their story: John and Yoko marry, and following a series of bed-ins (a shrewd bit of reality television) they move to New York and become buddies with the yippies, Black Panthers and other sundry counterculture fixtures.
Each seemed star-struck by the other, but their alliance also makes Lennon the subject of a government investigation. Lennon himself knew he was being followed — because, as he says, the people following him wanted him to see them.
But then John Dean admits chillingly that the Nixon administration had his phones tapped — adding that he thought the tactic was “unnecessary” and “risky.” And when Strom Thurmond suggests having Lennon deported over an old drug charge in England, it makes the singer an even more formidable figure than he already was.
Clearly Leaf and Scheinfeld have aimed to make a movie not just about a man, but about a pivotal point in American history. Even before Cuomo compares the Vietnam War to 9/11, before Gore Vidal likens Presidents Nixon and Bush, it’s obvious that the filmmakers are trying to draw a parallel between then and now.
In doing so, though, they’re preaching to the choir.