I liked The U.S. vs. John Lennon, but that was a foregone conclusion. I’m of the Beatles Generation pure and simple. I’m someone who skipped school the entire week that John and Yoko were the co-hosts on The Mike Douglas Show. (And, boy, did the clips used here show Mike Douglas to be a barely civil, uptight git — something I didn’t notice when I was 17.) Consequently, I was predestined to like The U.S. vs. John Lennon. I didn’t even mind the way certain aspects of Lennon’s life were ignored or glossed over (in some cases to the degree of taking slabs of self-made myth at face value). After all, the film at hand isn’t an attempt at biography, but exists as a portrait of a piece of Lennon’s life, an aspect of it.
It’s the story of the awakening of Lennon’s political awareness; his attempts to use his art and his celebrity status to make a difference; and, of course, his run-in with President Nixon and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover who viewed him as a supposedly dangerous radical who needed to be — at the very least — deported. The film is admirable in keeping this in focus, but at the end of it all, I came away realizing that I — personally — hadn’t learned anything I didn’t already know. (I noticed that Yoko was starting to show her years and that Gore Vidal was looking very old indeed — and these were things that caused me no joy.) This is not a criticism, merely an observation.
It’s not a criticism, because there’s nothing in the least wrong with being reminded of things we know, but probably don’t think about very often. And there’s certainly a point to looking at something from a different point in time. The material doesn’t change, but our perception of it does. We’ve changed and so has the world. That can be a sobering thing, as it is here.
Lennon’s self-proclaimed “peacenik” stance and the things he and Yoko did to promote it may have always seemed a little absurd. Lennon himself was aware of this and didn’t mind appearing foolish or naive to make his point. If the media wanted to mock him or question his sanity for staging his famous “bed-in” where he and Yoko stayed in bed — with the press in attendance — for a week as a protest for peace, that was fine. At least his message was being heard, and that really was the point.
Viewed from today’s perspective, it still has an absurd side, but that absurdity has been tempered by time — not in the least because not only is there no one doing anything like it today, there’s no single figure large enough or brave enough to do so. (The Dixie Chicks?) Moreover, would we buy it today? Lennon’s attempts smack of naivete now. They come from an age when we believed in the power of a good rock song to change the world, when, as Lennon himself had put it, there was a perception that “all you need is love.” Well, we’re smarter than that now, aren’t we? We know better, don’t we? And we’re so much better off for that smartness, aren’t we? Aren’t we? Cynicism is a pretty sorry replacement for naive idealism. It’s not merely nonproductive, it’s counterproductive — and it leaves a void. (That nagging void is one of the reasons that Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) found such ready favor with younger audiences, because it espoused many of those same naive beliefs in a completely uncynical manner.)
The question that arises is a simple one. If John and Yoko were merely loopy idealists and naive buffoons, what then were Nixon and company so afraid of? Of course, the answer is equally simple. They were afraid that people might listen to them. And the truth is that people did. As Gore Vidal puts it in an interview for the film, “John Lennon was a born enemy of those who control the United States, which is admirable. Lennon came to represent life, while Mr. Nixon — and Mr. Bush — represent death.”
Criticism has been leveled at the film on the neocon front for daring to suggest that there’s any relevance between Lennon’s era and the current one (especially as concerns Vidal’s statement), but that’s palpable nonsense that suggests the film has generated the same kind of fear in its detractors that Lennon instilled in Nixon. The idea that Lennon would have ever become a neocon is too ludicrous to imagine.
And for all that, isn’t this what’s at the bottom of The U.S. vs. John Lennon? Imagine John Lennon speaking out in today’s “you’re either with us, or against us” atmosphere where criticism of the government is often painted as tantamount to treason. For this reason alone — and for the fact that we no longer have a John Lennon — the film is worth seeing. If you lived through the era, it serves as a reminder. If you didn’t, it serves as a primer for what Lennon was and what he believed and what he did. I’m not sure it’s reasonable to ask more of it than that. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, violent images and drug references.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke