Only a fool believes America has made a lick of progress since the Nixon administration, and as much as David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s documentary is about a particular war and a very specific celebrity, the arguments, frustrations, and objections heard throughout the film are as depressingly applicable to these here United States, circa 2006. Dissent, it seems, has always been synonymous with treason. John Lennon, during his time one of the world’s most famous human beings, was bugged, followed, harassed, intimidated, and pressured for nothing more than speaking his mind, though it is clear that if his case was of concern to Richard Nixon, John Mitchell, and J. Edgar Hoover, he was perceived as a legitimate and dire threat to order and stability. Even now, many might argue that Lennon’s true violation was daring to speak about a country not his own, but as any scholar of the Constitution will tell you, its protections are not suspended because you were not born within U.S. borders. Besides, someone of Lennon’s stature (love him or hate him, his vast influence on popular culture is beyond debate) is more a “citizen of the world,” and it’s reasonable to suggest that art need not be bound by fences and nations.
Sure, this film never questions Lennon’s legacy or his talents, though it does prove conclusively that above all, he was a master of public relations. He understood the press and his role as a media darling, and used it to full effect. Even the silly bed-ins were acknowledged by Lennon himself to be naďve and pure hype, but if the cameras were flashing wherever he went, why not push it to an extreme? The point was, people were talking about him, publishing his words, and at the very least, the word “peace” appeared in the papers alongside body counts and other bad news. The film certainly believes in Lennon’s authenticity regarding his social views, and though I always temper my thoughts with the knowledge that celebrities fixate on self-promotion first and foremost, I would never suggest that Lennon was a phony. Yes, he was rich, beloved, and powerful enough to get others to take notice, but he could have easily rested on his laurels and lounged by the pool. Self-aggrandizing and obnoxious as he could be, at least he was in the streets and standing by his statements. In our current age, when very few musicians, actors, or athletes take a position on anything lest they jeopardize sales, it is refreshing to witness a time when balls were not in short supply.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon doesn’t present anything we don’t already know, but it nonetheless stands as an important and well-made chronicle of a time in our past when a musician could force the most powerful men in the country to take action. Fine, we’re a bit different as a country in that he didn’t disappear in the night or face a firing squad, but merely because we don’t resort to outright barbarism doesn’t make deportation hearings and illegal surveillance any less outrageous. Through it all, Lennon always maintained his trademark sense of humor, remarking to a reporter after the case had finally been dismissed (and most of the Nixon administration had retired in shame or sat rotting in jail), “Time wounds all heels.” He made serious points, ran with even more serious people (Bobby Seale and Abbie Hoffman among them), and never wavered in his commitment, but he never lost his smile. He always had enough money, but for a time, he was willing to risk his reputation and even his status in this country in order to highlight our nation’s wrongs. And while he should never be forgiven for marrying the humorless, talentless, and pathologically annoying Yoko Ono, she did help transform him from a shaggy-haired pop star to a voice of consequence and relevance. So instead of the 10 rounds that should have been pumped into her chest and abdomen by Mark David Chapman, I’ll be kind just this once and make it a single bullet. Still dead, then, but no need for overkill.