The Peace War and the Film That Failed to Unveil It

If I have to sit through another photomontage of Ono/Lennon cuddle shots and ’Nam protest rallies, it better be leading up to some damn sharp conspiracy juice. This tease of a film title dares to suggest an undiscovered vault of answers (or at least some new questions) concerning one of the most talked-about public figures of the century. Unfortunately, every time “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” seems hot on the trail, it shies from the unanswered and focuses on trying to cover as many aspects of the era (1967-1980) as possible, regressing to a scattered mess of tired, obvious biography without the dirt to warrant yet another grave-disturbing.

Courtesy of Lion’s Gate
In December of 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono hung posters and billboards around the world declaring “WAR IS OVER! (IF YOU WANT IT),” a stunt Lennon explained in the film as “cheaper than someone’s life.”

Writers/directors/producers David Leaf and John Scheinfeld do begin to uncover the little-told story of Lennon’s near deportation as an illegal alien by the Nixon administration, especially FBI villain J. Edgar Hoover. However, the filmmakers don’t have much to offer, save for amusing clips of John and Yoko in court declaring themselves part of sovereign nation “Utopia.” But I want some insight into the government’s suspicions and inner workings, and will not be satiated by one lefty’s simplified explanation (“they were nervous”) and some defensive commentary from a certain senile G. Gordon Liddy, of Watergate infamy. Why was the president so urgently trying to remove Lennon from the country? And what finally spooked the fearless activist into not appearing in the protest concert outside Miami’s Republican convention?

In some ways, Lennon was a complicated thinker of great wit and energy; on the other hand, the message he worked his whole life to get across was starkly simple (or, as many would say, naive). This documentary jumbles and fumbles these different perceptions, never deciding whether he was just a peace-crazed puppet for more intellectual activists like Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and Black Panther Bobby Seale or an elevated mind who understood the power of a simple message. Leaf and Scheinfeld’s attempt to combine the personal, adored charm of the family man (assisted by misty-eyed, biker-chick Yoko) with scattered depictions of his undefined politics ends up portraying a confused rock star out of his league — he deserves better.

With this latest compilation of footage on the political Beatle, we witness the advancing evolution of the VH1 “rock doc”: talking heads are silhouetted by graphic-forward layers of newspaper headlines instead of dramatically lit props (one barely notices the cut-out rim of Angela Davis’ wiggling ’fro) and archive images are transformed into morphing 3-D — either to wow the fogies or keep the kids awake, I presume. But vital editing flaws undo all the hard work, transitioning awkwardly from one topic to the (far-off) next. Four piercing gunshots obscuring a picture of John and his toddler overaccentuate a death that doesn’t try to be anything but the fault of one demented soul.

There is something to learn from Lennon’s peace sign, a symbol that has become just as stale as the smiley face or flower power, thanks mostly to the hippie stereotype-reviving ’90s — but it’s simplicity here that’s the key. He’s not asking for anything too extreme, or to argue about the natural battle instincts of man or history’s inability to solve any major issue without the deciding factor of war, etc.

“All we are saying,” he sings from his bed-in, making it sound so glaringly obvious and undemanding, “is give peace a chance.”

True, it’s more complicated than that, but his is a powerful concept that aptly applies itself to our current administration’s unnecessary military extravagance and inability to consider nonviolence as an option.

Issues of intrigue are certainly touched upon concerning the problem a radical artist posed for the United States (and what that means for us today), but until there’s something new to bring to the table — preferably proof that Lennon actually died in a shoot-off with G. Gordon Liddy — it’s not time to make a movie about it.