"The U.S. vs. John Lennon" is not a documentary designed for a better understanding of the late musician; it's a snapshot of a time when political upheaval was daily bread, and the government feared celebrities with opinions.
Being a co-production of VH1, "Lennon" can't buck the look and feel of a program that plays late at night after an especially volcanic episode of "Celebrity Fit Club." The film is put together in a very familiar, slick fashion, and has trouble covering up the pauses for commercial breaks. What helps the film rise above its basic cable origins is the footage presented, portions of it unearthed especially for this production.
Capturing the prime years between the break-up of the Beatles and his murder in 1980, "Lennon" gives the audience a look at a man fed up with injustice, realizing he's capable of affecting a world weary from the war in Vietnam. As Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono launch their campaign for peace, "Lennon" unveils incredibly candid footage of the legend as he duels with the media to make sure his message finds its way to the nation unfiltered. We see the "bed-in" protest, Lennon's animated talk show appearances, the "War is Over" poster campaign, and concert footage of the singer at rallies and marches, all painting a vivid picture of a personality fed up with politics, and frustrated with political apathy.
To help set the mood for the reels of Lennon footage, there is a wide assortment of interviews ranging from insightful viewpoints on the era from Ron Kovic and George McGovern to more pointed and blustery ramblings from Gore Vidal (he's the only personality to even mention the Bush administration). If it excels at anything, "Lennon" provides a fascinating overview of the death of the flower power generation and the birth of the radical movement, featuring Lennon as one of the most important figureheads of the period. Especially for younger audiences not around to witness this era firsthand, "Lennon" is an invaluable tool to witness the instability of America as the nation rose up and voiced their opposition, much to the horror of the Nixon administration.
The focus of "Lennon" is the political ramifications of the singer's actions, but the warmth of the man is always bubbling below the surface. Surely the 1988 doc "Imagine" takes the viewer deeper into the motivations of Lennon and Ono, but this new film shows us the amusing, angry, and dedicated man he was even when despised by the press, also giving a peek at the loving dynamic between Lennon and Ono as they teamed up to fight for peace and, toward the end, their U.S. citizenship.
It doesn't take a genius to realize that Lennon's story is meant to parallel the current Iraq situation we're dealing with today. I give the film credit for never pointing the similarities out, letting the footage speak for itself, which it does loud and clear. I'm not convinced "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" is something that needs to be seen on the big screen, but Lennon's private battle with political giants is remarkable in many ways, and the world could still learn much from his legacy.
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