There's two dominant themes in David Leaf and John Scheinfeld's superb documentary on the U.S. government's targeting of John Lennon and Yoko Ono as potential insurrectionists during the late sixties and mid-seventies: Lennon as the original rock icon/activist, who enabled musicians and artists like Bob Geldof and Bono to involve themselves in global causes; and the terrifying parallels between Nixonian abuses of power and the Vietnam War with the current Bush administration, and the War on Terrorism.
The filmmakers, however, don't proselytize, and don't really need to; with a wealth of archival interviews, news reports, and Nixon's own speeches, the filmmakers know today's media-savvy audience is already familiar with recent political speeches and policies, so when Nixon is seen explaining how a troop surge is supposed to predicate a slow and gradual withdrawal once Vietnam is back on its feet, the disastrous results of the past only deepen the fear of what might happen in 2007 and thereafter, as the conflagration in Iraq continues.
That's all bubbly subtext, however, as the doc's real meat deals with Lennon's transformation from former mop-top to a self-enlightened political activist, alongside Yoko Ono. There's no separation of the two in the doc, as they were clearly a two-person force who traversed the Atlantic to settle in New York City, and began associations and friendships with various radicals already deemed dangerous by Nixon and the FBI.
Sometimes the relationships with activists were genuine, and sometimes, as the new interviews clarify, the couple were used as contemporary pop culture icons spouting simpatico politics. The punishment for further involving themselves in U.S. politics was FBI tails, bugged phones, and a deportation order that dragged on for several years (but was eventually quashed in 1976).
The doc's filmmakers were also smart by not presenting their chronicle of Lennon's growth and the government's persecution from a clear-cut, liberal angle. On the right side, there's the well-tempered but hardline views of G. Gordon Liddy, and to the left side, comments from activists like Black Panther leader Bobby Seale. Former Democratic Presidential hopeful George McGovern finds the current Bush administration is far worse than Nixon's gang, whereas Fox newsman Geraldo Rivera feels the current political climate and accountability is respectively freer and more transparent today, because the administration's gaffes and lies are more liable to get flagged, tarred, and feathered by the media.
Rivera's appearance in the doc isn't purely for colour: he interviewed the couple for television during the seventies, and remains grateful to them for performing at a benefit concert for the mentally handicapped – small portions which appear later in the film, and in the extensive supplemental interview gallery.
Also on hand are two former FBI agents, who describe the agency and J. Edgar Hoover's mandate to quash activists; their discomfort in being part of a vengeful bureaucracy; and Lennon's admittedly awkward position by being a foreign-born pop star criticizing America within its boundaries.
Using a rich collection of source materials and oral histories, The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a superlative time-capsule that gives a broad snapshot of the strife within a populace, and its government. Fans of Lennon's music will also appreciate the way key songs are covered from their conception, their intended use as deliberately provocative anthems, and their enduring resonance among fans and aging activists who clearly are unsettled by the country's current political divisions.
Those parallels, between the past and present, are dealt with in the bonus footage gallery, which actually offers unused interview segments tightly edited into lengthy, thematic chapters. Covered are Lennon's childhood, the concept of 'dissent equals disloyalty,' the aforementioned concert nurtured by Rivera, and Yoko Ono reading her letter to the parole board to protest Mark David Chapman's possible parole from prison after being convicted for killing Lennon in 1980.
That last bit may seem like an odd closer to the set, but Ono's prose forms a deeply emotional tribute to her husband, and a personal comment on the charismatic artist who clearly would have pushed on with new causes.
Also of note is a reprint of British author Tariq Ali's late-sixties interview with Ono and Lennon (extracted from Streetfighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties), which the author explains in the doc as being a perfect example of the language and ideologies that swirled among the younger generation, while the Vietnam War escalated, militant activists formed powerful movements, and protesters were getting shot or beaten.
Although there's no filmmaker commentary track, the DVD's audio in both 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby is very punchy, and The U.S. vs. John Lennon is also a marvelous example of superb digital transition and animation effects that enhance and support a documentary without drawing attention to themselves. The layers and compositing are fluid, and mark a new high point for using digital effects creatively, intelligently, and unpretentiously.
Maple's release of the Lionsgate co-production is very timely, and forms a broader portrait of an era that's hyper-dissected in the Black Panther archival set, What We Want, What We Believe, which details the aggressive actions of the FBI against the Panthers, includes reproduced documents detailing the agency's tactics, an appearance by Bobby Seale at a recent Panther convention, and an hour-long interview with Agent Wesley Swearingen, one of the FBI agents featured in the Lennon doc.
No doubt the next DVD to bridge the conflicts within The U.S. vs. John Lennon with recent events is the upcoming Dixie Chicks doc, Shut Up & Sing.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan