``The U.S. vs. John Lennon" filters an entire era through the lens of one towering cultural figure, and so it has utility to two very different audiences: baby boomers who want to relive the glory days of '60s political activism, and protest kiddies who want a thumbnail history of an era usually encrusted with self-serving pomp.
Written and directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, the documentary's a hagiography, no mistake about it, but a fascinating one all the same, and it makes the case that Lennon was as much a genius provocateur as he was a cracked saint. Covering the period from 1966, when ``the smart Beatle" began to take a political stance, to the 1975 collapse of the US government's deportation case against him, the film shows a pop artist coming into the full power of his ability to influence public discourse -- and pushing it nearly to the breaking point.
That's right, your parents' early-'70s tax dollars went to high-level attempts to run the guy who wrote ``Imagine" out of America on a rail. How high-level? ``The U.S. vs. John Lennon" traces the paper trail from the INS to President Nixon's office itself and brings on John Dean, former White House counsel, to testify that his boss was terrified of Lennon's sway over the youth of America. FBI agents ruefully describe how J. Edgar Hoover ordered phone taps and had Lennon tailed, but it's never clear whether the ineptness of the project was accidental or meant to increase the singer's paranoia.
More than anything, Leaf and Scheinfeld re-create the atmosphere of crisis -- of society coming apart at the seams -- that defined this country in the late 1960s. Vietnam had created an activist backlash that ran deep; as Mario Cuomo points out, there was no Pearl Harbor or 9/11 for proponents of the war to rally around. The protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, Nixon's invasion of Cambodia, and the shootings at Kent State all contributed to the sense of near-total chaos.
Into this parachuted John and Yoko. Increasingly free of the Beatles and delighted to have found the woman who could ``take the bananas part of me out of the closet," Lennon moved to New York and set about rattling the empire with stunts both noble and ridiculous, often at the same time. Remember Bagism? The couple gave interviews while hidden from sight in a giant white baggie, focusing attention (it was hoped) on substance rather than celebrity obsession.
When the two married in 1969, they held a ``Bed-in for Peace," a world tour of hotel rooms where reporters could interview them as they lazed in the sack and talked activism all day. It was a public honeymoon, a practical joke, and brilliant political theater that leveraged the media's obsession and turned it to the couple's own ends. ``When I sing `I Wanna Hold Your Hand,' hundreds of millions of people hear that," Lennon said. ``What if I say, `Give peace a chance'?"
He also said, ``I'm an artist first and a politician second," and the deeper Lennon got, the more it was apparent. By the early '70s, when Lennon and Ono had allied themselves with activists such as Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers, their rhetoric had become increasingly naive. The couple's response to the government's decision to deport Lennon back to England was to hold a press conference announcing the founding of the country of ``Newtopia," with themselves as ambassadors. That's silly political theater.
``The U.S. vs. John Lennon" pays this development lip service -- couldn't the filmmakers have found someone besides Geraldo Rivera to point out that the couple had become tools of the radical left? -- but sticks to the image of Lennon as working-class hero. The film does bring on a stellar roster of talking heads from both left and right: Gore Vidal (thunderously making parallels between the bad old days and today), Walter Cronkite, George McGovern, G. Gordon Liddy (scorning the victims of Kent State as ``college kids without the sense God gave a goose"), Angela Davis.
The music, all of it from Lennon's solo years, traces a similar path from blissful liberation to strident agit-pop, but the footage from history's vaults is so revelatory as to seem surreal. Priceless scenes of Lennon, Ono, and Seale debating policy on Mike Douglas's daytime chat show only proves how far today's TV has fallen.
The primary talking head is Ono, of course, who's serenely protective of Lennon's greater legacy. Her cooperation ties the film's hands, but only to a point, and her enduring affection for this ornery, complicated, gifted, exasperating man-child is one that most of us share and that the movie allows to flower anew.
On the same day in 1975, the INS dropped its deportation case and Sean Lennon was born. Then John retreated into house-husbandry for five years. Then the dream was over.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.