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By Bryan Newbury
November 4, 2006

At least there’s Keith Olbermann.

Though certain reviewers have called comparisons to the antiwar movement during the Nixon administration to that of today’s tumult, one would need blinders fitted for a thoroughbred to avoid obvious parallels. The U.S. vs. John Lennon begins with an archetypal image of the scene in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. A concert is being held for jailed MC5 manager and marijuana legalization activist John Sinclair. Sinclair’s offense? Offering two joints to an undercover agent. His sentence? Ten years maximum security.

Enter a cast of fellow musicians and activists. At center stage is John Lennon, armed with National Resophonic guitar and his wife Yoko. We are to find out that the simple act of singing on Sinclair’s behalf coincided with the Michigan Supreme Court summarily overturning the conviction they’d recently upheld. Maybe there’s something to this whole rock ‘n roll thing.

The U.S. vs. John Lennon follows this scene with a bit of exposition. Much of it isn’t altogether necessary to fans of Lennon. For that matter, fans of popular culture in the second half of the twentieth century. It does, however, serve to build the foundation for a narrative pacing that is commendable in documentary filmmaking.

It also does credit to the film’s subject by magnifying the iconic moments of Lennon’s professional and activist life beyond the soundbites. “Bigger than Jesus” comes up on cue. “Bagism,” with Lennon’s humorous quipping upon the public’s distaste for Yoko Ono in the shadow of the Beatles break-up. (“What has this Japanese witch done? She’s made him crazy.”) Like so many Lennon soundbites, there’s a real substantive thought process behind it. The U.S. … does a splendid job, for the most part, of contextualizing these moments ingrained within our national psyche. In the case of “Bagism,” Lennon was attempting to point out the advances civilization might make should they only look beyond surface and skin tone. He is a dreamer, after all.

Later on, we’re treated to footage from his infamous argument with a New York Times reporter. You know, the one where he chastises her for refusing to let go of the mop top image, then she chastises him for being “ridiculous.” In The U.S. vs. John Lennon we are allowed to see much more of that conversation. Leaf and Scheinfeld deftly maneuver the rocky waters of a documentary based on such a public figure. There is much one has seen, but that extra sentence that doesn’t show up in Imagine or Anthology is very welcome. They haven’t closed the book on Lennon projects by a long stretch, but they have raised the bar. 

Of course, when dealing with this period in American history, one is beset by dichotomies from all directions. Lennon is, rightly, diagnosed by Gore Vidal (yes, the guest list is a who’s who of public intellectuals from Noam Chomsky to Vidal to George McGovern and a wonderful few minutes from Tariq Ali) as everything the ruling class in American politics despises. A working class hero standing for peace and love. Lennon’s working class credibility is a key point.

In typical ‘60’s fashion, we’re brought to the 1968 Democratic Convention. People speculate as to Lennon’s feelings and observations about this ignominious beatdown of peaceful protesters at the hands of the Chicago Police. Reflecting upon this moment, the viewer is quick to ruminate upon the class undertones in that melee. Surely the irony wasn’t lost on Lennon that the working class of Chicago were the men doling out the beatings and not the other way around.

They were complex times.

Yet, despite the apparent vacuousness of postmodern America, Lennon’s times don’t seem very far removed from our own. The only illustration one needs is footage of Nixon insisting that troop drawdowns are at hand (years before the end of the Vietnam War) while cautioning that there isn’t to be a timetable for withdrawal. Should the viewer need more evidence, he could consider the overwhelming paranoia of the FBI towards dissident movements or the urging of J. Edgar Hoover… placed brilliantly in the center of the film for dramatic nemesis effect… that this country needs good Christian soldiers. If that isn’t enough, there’s always John stating that peace can be viewed as a commodity. It is “like soap,” and should the housewife or soccer mom be presented with the product of peace or the product of war and death, well, the market has a way of deciding.

In today’s atmosphere of repression and Constitutional crisis it is easy to forget that America has existed in a way antithetical to our guiding principles for much of the last century. Does this make the times less dangerous? Not exactly. Yes, things were fucked up in the 1960’s whether or not you were affiliated with the Black Panther Party. Things are fucked up now. Trying to weigh that quality is a fool’s errand. 

As we proceed, FBI agents and government officials—represented adequately by one G. Gordon Liddy—explain just why the U.S. government had a beef with John Lennon that resulted in farcical immigration trials for the better part of three years. It wasn’t the lyrics or even his actions, but his association with the likes of Rubin, Hoffman and Seale that perked the ears of authority. Why can’t you just shut up and sing?

Despite masterly pacing, The U.S. vs. John Lennon suffers from a conflict of ambition and running time. We’re taken from the Nixon administration and the immigration battles to the birth of his son Sean straight to December of 1980. While the film does a splendid job of considering the public John Lennon and his battle with a nefarious national security state, it would have been prudent to avoid attempting a biography of the personal Lennon, the more mysterious person of 1976 until his death, without an extra two hours to examine him.

All in all, it is a miniscule failing when compared to the overall triumph.

Among the welcome footage and subsequent observations is the legendary Walter Cronkite. This ties in the film within the film within the film. On one level, there is John Lennon the man. This is captured better in other pictures. On another, there is John Lennon the activist. The U.S. vs. John Lennon portrays this beautifully. Finally, there is the political situation of Vietnam and how eerily it mirrors that of Iraq. This is a subject too big for 90 minutes, or even 190 minutes.

A figure such as Cronkite is big enough to elicit the proper thought, though. Seeing his reports, most notably from 1968, we are reminded of the aforementioned Olbermann. It is obvious that the MSNBC host has studied Cronkite as fastidiously as Edward R. Murrow. We are all the better for his research. It is a silver lining.

Where, then, is today’s John Lennon, or even John Sinclair? Possibly this is why the flower power generation remains so captivating. Even celebrities were willing to risk a great degree of personal capital to take a stand. In comparison, today’s artist-activists seem timid or peripheral.

Ah, it was a time of naiveté. Surely today’s entertainers and intellectuals have learned from the drubbing people like Lennon suffered.

It is an easy escape, but one which The U.S. vs. John Lennon doesn’t afford the viewer. Seems he knew more than we’re willing to credit.

All together now…


A Lionsgate release of an Authorized Pictures production.
Directed, written by David Leaf, John Scheinfeld.
Produced by David Leaf, John Scheinfeld.
Executive producers, Sandra Stern, Kevin Beggs, Tom Ortenberg, Nick Meyer, Steve Rothenberg, Erik Nelson, Brad Abramson, Michael Hirschhorn, Lauren Lazin.
Co-producer, Peter S. Lynch II. 

With: Carl Bernstein, Noam Chomsky, Walter Cronkite, Angela Davis, Ron Kovic, G. Gordon Liddy, George McGovern, Yoko Ono, David Peel, Geraldo Rivera, Bobby Seale, John Sinclair, Tom Smothers, Jon Weiner, Leon Wildes


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Review this film for yourself.

Steve on February 10th, 2007 at 10:48 pm 

Look, I don’t know where you got your facts from, but John Sinclair was never in the MC5, he was just their manager.
I will refer you to an interview with him here:

Otherwise, nice article. I enjoyed the film as well.

joshd on February 11th, 2007 at 11:04 am 

Thanks Steve. I made the change.

Adela Breckenridge on May 21st, 2012 at 5:03 pm 

Awesome website man, I wish I’ll make something similar by content like that lmao.

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