The long legal effort by the Nixon Administration to deport John Lennon and Yoko Ono is the culminating act of this documentary, a solid but unremarkable piece that covers the singer’s post-Beatle involvement with American anti-war activists and the resultant government attempt to eject him and his wife from their New York residence. The tactic involves charging Lennon as an undesirable on the basis of an old British drug conviction.
The portrait drawn by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld benefits from the fact that Ono agreed to cooperate in the making of the picture, not only by participating in interviews (along with a bevy of others, from Carl Bernstein and Walter Cronkite to Angela Davis and Bobby Seale, Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal and George McGovern and Ron Kovic, as well as G. Gordon Liddy), but by providing footage from the family archives. But it also suffers for the same reason, seeming more like an authorized biography than a genuinely independent project. Or to put it another way: this telling is rather hagiographical, portrayed more in black and white than shades of gray. And some of the interviewees–Geraldo Rivera, and Vidal certainly–come on awfully strong. On the other hand, the matter-of-fact way in which Liddy talks about the targeting of Lennon, without the hint of an apology, is genuinely unsettling. The newsreel material–of INS officials, of Strom Thurmond leading the assault on Lennon’s status, of John and Oko’s “sleep-ins” and of crowds chanting “Give Peace a Chance” at massive anti-war rallies–can’t help but stir the blood. The portrait it draws of Lennon’s lawyer Leon Wildes, shown in old footage as well as commenting on the legal battle from today’s perspective, makes one feel better than usual about attorneys. And though the film is hardly intended as a record of Lennon’s song-writing career, it contains lots of his music for fans, who will also be amused by the quick wit he shows throughout the clips and moved by the closing segment on his death.
“The U.S. Vs. John Lennon” certainly succeeds in ridiculing the government’s attempt to cripple the peace movement by deporting its songsmith; as with so many of the Nixon administration’s operations, the Keystone Kops effort turned out to hurt the perpetrators more than their targets. And though it will be more at home on the tube, where it will shortly wind up (it was partially financed by VH1 as part of its ongoing series of documentaries), it makes for a pleasant, if unassuming, theatrical experience.