- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006

John Lennon gave us numerable pop classics as a Beatle, but to filmmakers David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, his greatest song remains “Give Peace a Chance.”

The duo’s documentary “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” follows Mr. Lennon’s post-Beatles life as an antiwar activist and, later, a recalcitrant American green-card holder.

While the former makes for trippier visuals, it’s the latter where we truly get to know Mr. Lennon.

The battle royal involves the U.S. government’s attempt to follow and, eventually, deport the singer over visa issues. To get there, viewers must slog through a hippie’s greatest-hits set that sets the stage for Mr. Lennon’s rebirth but simultaneously diminishes his intellect.

Future generations can turn “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” into a righteous drinking game — drink every time he says either “peace” or “love.”

The documentary gets the counterculture ball rolling with Mr. Lennon’s comment that the Beatles were more influential than Jesus. The young singer quickly apologized and expanded on his view, but not before disgruntled fans burned his records in defiance.

That plus his unhappy childhood created a revolutionary mind-set that quickly found its muse with the Vietnam War. At first, the singer’s comments were confined to an occasional interview or concert appearance. Soon, however, he and new wife Yoko Ono staged “bed-ins” to protest the war and began hanging around with radicals such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.

That’s when government officials began taking a special interest in Mr. Lennon, resulting in phone taps and other unsavory investigative practices.

The film leans on a bevy of surviving radicals to flesh out Mr. Lennon’s story, with only Watergate co-conspirator G. Gordon Liddy standing in the government’s defense. The candid moments are some of the film’s best, as Mr. Liddy defends the indefensible with a straight face.

No matter what one’s view of the Vietnam War or its opponents might be, it’s hard not to be moved by Mr. Lennon’s attempts to stay in the country. It’s here where the singer’s eloquence shines, as does his love of America’s core values. Sure, he had the money and the fame to eventually win the battle, but it’s a credit to him that he chose to stay and fight.

And, of course, there are the songs, a trove of material that proves the terms “great” and “protest music” needn’t be mutually exclusive.

The film stacks the decks in Mr. Lennon’s favor in more ways than one. We see the ex-Beatle as a decent, caring free-speech advocate who argued “all you need is love” over and again. It’s the sort of hagiography you might expect considering the steep contributions from Yoko Ono (who provides plenty of film material) but it ignores Mr. Lennon’s compelling flaws.

It also likely robbed us of commentary by ex-Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. And why isn’t Julian Lennon in the mix?

The film’s appearance at this time likely isn’t an accident. The war in Iraq is constantly compared to Vietnam, and some comparisons alluded to here are chilling. Writer-directors Mr. Leaf and Mr. Scheinfeld want audiences to compare President Nixon to President Bush, both for their supposed warmongering and stifling of dissent, even though they mostly restrain themselves from direct comparison.

That’s where uber-lefty Gore Vidal comes in, shattering the time warp with a “Bush equals death” slogan that diminishes everything and everyone around it.

It’s easy to imagine Mr. Lennon clucking his tongue at Mr. Vidal and breaking into a fresh verse of “Give Peace a Chance.”

..1/2

WHAT: “The U.S. vs. John Lennon”

RATING: PG-13 (Adult language, partial nudity and drug references)

CREDITS: Written and directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.theusversusjohnlennon.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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