A turbulent look at the life of a peacenik“The U.S. vs. John Lennon” is supposedly only 97 minutes long, but I came out of the theater exhausted.
This ambitious documentary about the former Beatle’s plight against the United States government cuts back and forth chronologically, spinning a narrative through spliced-together interviews from talking heads ranging from Yoko Ono to Geraldo (Blech) Rivera.
As if that’s not enough, the interviews and clips of the life and times of Lennon are tumultuous in and of themselves. The film opens with Lennon’s contribution to a “Free John Sinclair” rally held on behalf of the imprisoned pot-smoking poet.
The event is just one of Lennon’s many social activist campaigns that the documentary follows, which include his controversial Jesus comment, opposition to the Vietnam War, allying with activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, his thwarted deportation by the U.S. government and so on.
This laundry list of radical activity certainly has an enervating effect on the audience, but the film also has great merit.
The interviews provide insight into Lennon’s many sides, most intimately through Ono’s recollections. Depending on the topic, her mood switches from elation to nostalgia to abject sorrow.
There are also fascinating details provided by such sources as Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York, and former FBI agent Wes Swearington.
The latter, who was active in J. Edgar Hoover’s 1960s version of McCarthyism, speaks about how the government sought to squelch Lennon’s dissenting voice.
“Just sing your songs and keep quiet,” Swearington recalls thinking at one point in the film. But despite the former agent’s past antagonism toward the artist, his interview seems to reflect genuine remorse for the effects of his work.
Cuomo serves the film by juxtaposing Vietnam with other eras in United States history.
“There was no 9/11, no Pearl Harbor,” he says of the Vietnam War, which he calls “unpopular.”
But when viewers consider his words in 2008, we see that President George W. Bush wrongfully used 9/11 as the catalyst for the war in Iraq, which has similarly grown highly unpopular.
History by nature is truly cyclical, but unlike the late 1960s, when those opposed to war had such compelling mouthpieces like Lennon, the present day does not.
Sure, we have our Springsteens and Redfords and Penns, but none of the above have been able to electrify the populace like Lennon appeared to.
Directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld are able to convey this message through a powerful, emotional medium, but one that seems a bit too loosely constructed.
At times like the U.S.’s attempted deportation of Lennon, the film drags with its attention to the saga’s details.
If The U.S. vs. John Lennon has an anthem, it’s “Give Peace a Chance,” the artist’s song against the Vietnam War.
But somehow, it seems incongruous to have such a raging film devoted to a self-described peacenik.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon
Documentary / English
By Hannah Bae Contributing Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]