The U.S. vs. John Lennon | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The U.S. vs. John Lennon 

Days Like These

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At some time in the future, hopefully not too long from now, when Islam goes the way of Christianity -- with suburban glass churches that seat 3,000 of Jesus' closest friends -- will we look back on our fear of terrorism and wonder what all the anxiety was about?

No, probably not. But why was our government so damned afraid of John Lennon? Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover feared him so much that they tried to have him deported, a civil action suggested by Strom Thurmond, the late racist senator. In The U.S. vs. John Lennon, David Leaf and John Scheinfeld have assembled an edifying history lesson with no revelations, a documentary film that's more like an idealistic candle, carried by a '60s peace protester, than an incendiary call to arms.

The first half is marginally about Lennon, and certainly not about The Beatles. (Paul, George and Ringo literally don't say a word in the film.) As background, the filmmakers recount the rise of the protest movement against the escalating Vietnam War. This is when Lennon began to radicalize. Then, in 1971, things changed: Jerry Rubin persuaded John and Yoko to appear at a concert to free John Sinclair, a Detroit radical sentenced to 10 years in prison for trying to sell two joints. It worked -- on the Monday after the concert, the Michigan Supreme Court freed him -- but it also convinced Nixon's henchmen that Lennon needed to be destroyed. So they followed him, taped his phone calls, and eventually began deportation proceedings that took four years to fail.

Leaf and Scheinfeld tell this story straightforwardly, with copious historical footage and here-and-now comments from George McGovern, G. Gordon Liddy, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and numerous radicals, journalists and FBI agents of the time. (If these names don't ring any bells, then all the more reason for the film to exist.) You come away from it with the impression that Lennon -- witty, cagey, provocative -- was no dilettante at art, peace and the marriage of the two. The jury is still out on Ono, as I suspect it always will be.

Lennon planned his actions smartly, spoke of them thoughtfully, and knew that the government wanted to force him to act violently because "then they know how to handle you." He repeated the word "peace peace peace" over and over and over because he understood that he was selling an idea, "and we've got to sell it and sell it until the housewife thinks there's two products, peace and war."

So it went, so it goes. A quarter-century later, there are more wars and more danger in the world than at any time in history, and it's all bloodier than ever. Looks like they didn't have to worry about John Lennon and the peaceniks after all. Aaa

Starts Fri., Oct. 6.



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