"The U.S. vs. John Lennon" captures America circa 1960-1980 and the turbulent times in between. A nation called America devastated by troubling events like the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and RFK, the police attacks at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Watergate Hotel break-in, the resignation of then-U.S. president Richard Nixon, the FBI's ever-increasing surveillance and infiltration of black activist groups and other political organizations, the events at Kent State in Ohio and at other campuses across the country, and many other incidents, not the least of those being the assassination of the subject of the documentary, in New York City, USA.The same nation was galvanized by many activists including John Lennon, the former Beatle who together with wife Yoko Ono shook a mostly apathetic and silent nation called America into action. David Leaf & John Scheinfeld direct, write and produce one of the best documentaries of this new century -- an extraordinary, riveting, spirited, exuberantly entertaining crowd-pleaser that inescapably compels its audience to consider the volatile times of the recent past and use them to enthuse an vigorous, peaceful activism for the present polarizing times in America and other nations. This singular quality in and of itself defines the very spirit of a flamboyant, quick-witted, very funny, philosophical, idealistic, iconoclastic and highly opinionated figure in the shape of one John Winston Lennon. The ex-Beatle gets a lot more than a little help from his friends in this documentary as Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale and others are featured in film archive footage, while such figures as Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal (who draws some huge cheers at one point in this documentary), Walter Cronkite, Angela Davis, Tariq Ali, Geraldo Rivera, John Dean, Ron Kovic, George McGovern, Mario Cuomo, Tommy Smothers and G. Gordon Liddy among others, recall and chronicle the furor in America of the many political events in the 1960's that would shape the nation to this very day. With all of these names, "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" is never boring.
The directors cram so many fascinating stories and revelations into their documentary that it feels as if the film's audience is reading a book -- and that is a compliment to their ability for detail, the film's editing, and the many memorable scenes, statements and encounters involving Lennon. One of the numerous noteworthy events is Lennon and Ono's appearance at a December 1972 concert in Michigan, where along with Jerry Rubin they sang "John Sinclair (Set Him Free)", a Lennon song dedicated to Sinclair, an imprisoned man who had been arrested and jailed for smoking marijuana and giving a "joint" of it to an undercover police officer in Michigan in 1970. The power of Lennon as a former "Moptop" Beatle-turned-activist was established when just two days later the Michigan Supreme Court reversed itself and set free the very man Lennon sang about. The FBI under its chief J. Edgar Hoover, began following and wiretapping Lennon, tracing his every move. Lennon even wrote a song about the way he was feeling: "Scared". Another highlight of many is the interaction between Lennon and a New York Times columnist who breathlessly declares that she loved him as a Beatle but decries him as a wise, battle-weary intellectual and activist for social justice. Lennon responds by saying (paraphrasing) that "it's great that you liked me as a moptop, but I'm not bloody singing 'A hard day's night' anymore, I've grown up now! And you should too!" This exchange alone is worth the price of admission.There are many other stories including the immigration effort to deport Lennon back to England, spearheaded by Senator Strom Thurmond, and Nixon's watch via H.R. Halderman over Lennon. The film starts with people burning records in Tennessee and across the Bible Belt states of America to protest a statement that Lennon-as-Beatle made when he said that to many kids, "the Beatles meant more than Jesus". His efforts to defend what he said only fueled the fundamentalist Christian contingent. The documentary does not focus on the Beatles break up, or the foolish rumors of Yoko Ono's presence as a facilitator of the break-up; it doesn't have to. Unlike many political documentaries, "Lennon" contains an abundance of footage of intimate moments between Ono and Lennon; they are truly in love with each other and as Lennon recounts, one of the things that drew him to her was that she was crazier and wilder than he was. The moments between they and newborn Sean ("Beautiful Boy" song) are priceless. (Incredibly, Sean was born on his father's birthday, and on the same day that he won the right to stay in the U.S.) Lennon's originality and utopian ideals came through in a "Bed Peace/Hair Peace" bed-in in Montreal and in Amsterdam that attracted the world's attention. Ono's performance art was stirring and there is a quietly disturbing and powerful moment early on when she becomes her own exhibit on stage -- Lennon's description of what she does -- or at least one of the personalities' description of what she does -- is so exacting that it reaches the core of the viewer in such a succinct fashion. Their legendary appearances on "The Dick Cavett Show" and "The Mike Douglas Show" were some of the best moments that American television had to offer in the 1960's and '70's. He even advocated with his wife a new country called "Nutopia" and both of them waved a white handkerchief as a symbol of solidarity and citizenship. Many people laughed them out of the press conference they held to announce this, and quite a few of today's viewers will, too."Call it "Instant Karma", the power of "Woman", or a "#9 Dream", but in any event there's no doubt that "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" is was of the cinematic events of 2006. And that's wasn't hard to "Imagine". Lennon's lasting message, in the film's final frames is simply: "All you need is love." And all this review is saying is give "Lennon" a chance.