The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a fascinating documentary that examines Lennon’s transformation from musician to activist and how that drew the attention and ire of the United States government, more specifically the Nixon administration. In his songs and interviews, and with the support of Yoko Ono, he protested the Vietnam War, advocated world peace, and spoke out about injustice.
Lennon was no stranger to controversy, quickly learning the power his words carried after his comment about The Beatles being “more popular than Jesus” upset a number of people who didn’t understand what he meant. He used the media as a platform to get his ideas out while they used him to attract an audience and sell advertising. In March 1969, the press wanted coverage of Lennon and Ono’s honeymoon in Amsterdam, so the newlyweds held a bed-in for peace and invited everyone up to their room to discuss it. Later that year in June, a second bed-in was held in Montreal hotel room. A number of celebrities visited and “Give Peace a Chance” was recorded there.
Many noticed the attention and interest given to Lennon’s words and deeds, especially by young people. The New Left wanted to use him as a poster boy to raise awareness for their causes. In December 1971, he performed at a benefit in support of John Sinclair, an antiwar activist sentenced to 10 years for selling two joints to an undercover cop. Lennon began to make friends who were watched closely by the U.S. government, such as Bobby Seale, founder of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense and Yippie Jerry Rubin, who he would bring on as guests when he and Ono co-hosted The Mike Douglas Show in 1972.
The Nixon administration also noticed the attention and perceived power of Lennon, especially after the passing of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 and created a voting bloc more receptive to Lennon’s views than Nixon’s. The FBI put him under surveillance, amassing a 300-page file. A plan was concocted to get him deported, citing a 1968 misdemeanor conviction he had for marijuana possession in London. Rumors of playing near the ’72 Republican convention in Miami to disrupt it, which he denied, didn’t help his case.
Lennon hired immigration attorney Leon Wildes and fought the charges. He eventually sued the government and proved their actions were illegal and politically motivated. He outlasted the Nixon administration whose pervasive paranoia and mad power grabs resulted in a cold, harsh slap of “Instant Karma!” in 1974. Lennon obtained his green card in 1975.
The story is told through a combination of archival footage and interviews with many prominent people from the time. When deciding on the participants, the filmmakers asked themselves, “Who speaks with authority and credibility to what happened? Not somebody who was at a remove from it, not somebody who’s studied it, but somebody who was in the thick of it.” Unlike most political documentaries, we get to hear from many people on both sides of the issue. Not only the obvious choices from the Left, such as Seale, Sinclair and Yippie Stew Albert, and journalists, such as Walter Cronkite, Carl Bernstein, and Geraldo Rivera, but we get to hear “The U.S.” side former Nixon administration officials G. Gordon Liddy and John Dean as well as former FBI agents John C. Ryan and Wesley Swearingen.
However, the film would not be as brilliant were it not for the participation of the two people at the center. Lennon is intelligent, engaging and humorous in interviews. The film uses 40 of his songs, which provides great narration to the series of events. Since some songs were in reaction to what was taking place, it’s intriguing to hear an artist process what is happening in his life. Ono allowed the filmmakers access to the Lennon-Ono archives that resulted in the use of footage that had never been seen by the public before. It is amazing how much of their life was recorded, as if they were the first reality stars. She also provides her insight and memories of what they experienced.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon tells a compelling, cautionary tale because the government’s actions, more so than anything Lennon said or did, stand in stark contrast to the ideas the United States was founded on, ideas that they were supposed to be representing. Sure to be one of the best documentaries, if not, one of the best films of 2006.