The film picks up with Lennon just as his propensity for activism is set to explode. Writers/directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld waste little time emphasizing the cultural significance of Lennon and the Beatles prior to the group's politicization in the 1960s. As a result, audience members unfamiliar with the meteoric rise of the Beatles and their impact on popular culture (i.e., people raised on other planets) may be at a loss to understand exactly what the sensation surrounding Lennon was all about. But the film stays true to its title and remains focused on the causes and eventual culmination of the investigation that the U.S. government brought against Lennon and Ono, claiming (and proving conclusively) that the government's motivations were entirely adversarial.
Faced with the lunacy of the Vietnam War—a conflict portrayed here as bearing striking similarities to the war in Iraq—Lennon and Ono waged a public-relations campaign of civil disobedience and performance art in an effort to popularize nonviolence and a heightened sense of personal accountability regarding the military actions of the world's governments. Making fine use of the vast horde of archival material available to them, the filmmakers feature highlights from the couple's antiwar activism, from the songs that Lennon wrote ("Give Peace a Chance," "Instant Karma," "Imagine," etc.) to their "bed-in" honeymoon and poster campaigns.
By 1972, Lennon and Ono were perceived as a serious enough threat to Richard Nixon's reelection campaign that a decision was made to have them silenced. Exactly who made this decision is unclear, but enough documentation is presented to make a strong case that it was mandated at the highest levels of government. Proceedings were instituted to have the couple deported, and a long and excruciating legal battle ensued. By the end of it, Lennon and Ono remained in their beloved New York City and Nixon had left the White House in shame, but the result was less an outright victory than a successful war of attrition. Despite winning the right to remain in the country, the couple's activism had been severely curtailed and the movement of which they were a part had more or less disintegrated.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon unapologetically pursues the same antiwar agenda as the one pursed by its subjects, and it is no surprise that the effort was supported and endorsed by Ono and the many other celebs who make appearances. The film's thesis is clearly articulated by Gore Vidal near the conclusion of the film: "Lennon represented life, and Mr. Nixon, and Mr. Bush, represent death." Both Vidal and the filmmakers seem to imply that the struggle between life and death is ongoing and unending, a fact that must be faced honestly for any idealism to be maintained over the long haul.
The filmmakers ultimately manage to render what might otherwise have been dated subject matter in a manner that is extremely relevant today. If Lennon's success at defending his civil liberties and speaking out against violence and imperialism is any indication of the possibilities open to the artists among us, then there remains considerable hope for the future.
Opens Friday, Sept. 29, at Fox Tower.