Film Reviews

The US vs. John Lennon David Leaf and John Scheinfeld

Rating - 7/10

As someone who has nursed a Beatles obsession since he was 12 years old, poring over all the music, all the books and all the movies, I'm not easily impressed by anything purporting to show me something new about their story (vinyl fanatics in the US will recognize the album reference in this sentence). If you're like me, you will sit through stretches in this film, especially covering the early years, that will be as familiar as old shoes. That being said, there is enough new detail and context here to inform even the most jaded Beatlemaniac.

The context here is the antiwar movement of the late 60s and early 70s, especially in America, where Lennon came to live after the Beatles broke up in 1970. The government of Richard Nixon, and its fair to say, much of his "silent majority" in the country, felt threatened by the mass democratic movements that were forcing radical changes in the status quo. The civil rights movement had been the first shot across the bow and its success served as a catalyst to uniting opposition against the naked imperialism of the Vietnam War. Organized mainly by "campus radicals" and energetic firebrands like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, the antiwar movement posed a direct threat to the establishment elites by recruiting its next generation, the privileged youth attending the premier universities. If these people didn't buy in, who was going to run things the "right way" in 20 years?

So it's no surprise that an administration as paranoid and lawless as that of Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, would see John Lennon as a threat. It's hard for us to understand it today, but the Beatles, and Lennon in particular, held an almost mythic status even in their own time. I search fruitlessly for a modern analogue to their stature in the culture as avatars of the youth movement. Sorry guys, but Bono just ain't cuttin' it. Suffice it to say that they were taken seriously enough for Nixon himself to be concerned about Lennon, as he became more outspoken and involved.

Through interviews with a variety of activists and journalists and excellent documentary footage of the period the film does a fine job of providing a backdrop for Lennon's immersion in the antiwar movement and the reaction it caused in the halls of power. Johnson, and later Nixon, were fighting a war on two fronts; in Vietnam and at home. There were enemies of the state, subversives and communists, lurking everywhere. They were undermining the imperial project and needed to be combated. There is ample documentation of the steps taken to wiretap and follow Lennon in order to intimidate him, and the film handles it cinematically, with floating memos and highlighted sentences behind talking heads. This was probably appropriate, though I found myself wanting to know more than what happened to be floating by, and it sometimes became difficult to follow the speakers and read the fragments at the same time.

Occasionally the film drifts into hagiography, even with the inclusion of opposing voices like G. Gordon Liddy, or in spite of them. It also makes a serious misstep having Yoko subtly imply a connection between John's harassment and his murder in 1980, and the film reinforces this message by dealing with the utterly unrelated incident at all. Otherwise, the treatment is accurate and imformative. There is some great concert footage of John performing "John Sinclair" and enough interview material with him to demonstrate that while he may have been naïve politically, his views were coherent and righteous. There is certainly enough here for old fans as well as anyone remotely interested in the period.