[1 November 2006]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
We have to get out there and change their heads.
John Lennon didn’t mean to be singled out by Richard Nixon’s administration, but he knew what to do when it happened. According to David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s documentary, his seeming threat resulted from a confluence of forces perfectly arranged into storm-like condition. The U.S. vs. John Lennon begins not at the beginning but rather at an effective point of departure, the 1971 concert for John Sinclair that brought Lennon to the attention of his nervous and nefarious foes. Here Lennon appears on stage to call up support for a man incarcerated for giving two joints to an undercover police officer. Not a smart move, certainly, but not worth 10 years of his life either.
Manager of the MC5 and chairman of the White Panther Party, Sinclair was well enough loved among the sorts the government deemed “fringe” that his case garnered national and then international attention. In Ann Arbor, MI, the Free John Now Rally was headlined by John and Yoko and noted by the government: here, suspicious minds surmised, were seeds of trouble, in need of surveillance and limitation. As Geraldo Rivera notes in the film, the administration had long since absorbed the “paranoia” of its leader, such that “somebody in show business” might be interpreted so severely precisely because he engaged in a public political act.
It’s not as if Lennon was the first celebrity to participate in politics, to support a cause or a person, or even to stand up against perceived official wrongdoing. But, the film implies, the strange maelstrom that swirled around him, comprised of personalities, coincidences, and ill intents, looked forward to the ways that various campaigns, in commercial and political venues, have been waged to curb speech by influential-seeming stars. As Tariq Ali notes, Lennon was “engaging with the world… and then something quite dramatic happened.” The world—as it was conceived by the Nixon administration - engaged back.
The film traces this relationship by a combination of talking heads (including Tom Smothers, anti-war activist Ron Kovic, and former FBI agent Wesley Swearingen), archival footage (Lennon and Yoko were photographed and filmed incessantly), and Lennon’s music. While Lennon maintained that he was “an artist first and a politician second,” his very linking of the two terms posed a threat. And so the U.S. government took up a campaign of its own, to monitor and contain him, and eventually, to deport him. His engagement was artistic, certainly, and sometimes so plainly stated that it appeared inscrutable. The film tracks back to find the early signs of his seeming “threat” in the controversy that swirled around his observation that the Beatles had become “bigger than Jesus” (an observation, the film clarifies, of the group’s commercial force, not a prideful declaration). With microphones in their faces, the Beatles appear in archival footage, looking bemused and a little dazed by the onslaught and the public’s seeming determination to misunderstand the comment, to see in it evidence of Lennon’s hubris and menace.
As Lennon’s life changed—with the breakup of the Beatles, his liaison with Yoko, and his decision to move to New York City, among other things—he also engaged more deliberately with the world in ways he deemed important. As he spoke out against the Vietnam war in his music and remarkable events (for instance, the bed-ins), he became more visible as an opponent, someone who wielded “power” in swaying public opinions (that administration officials considered him a source of trouble more than a symptom indicates the poverty of their imaginative and interpretive skills).
Though its own structure can seem reductive and its points overstated, the film helpfully reminds you of the genius of John and Yoko’s demonstrations. The first bed-in for peace, in 1969, is a good example. Setting precedents for celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, the couple decided that, since the press was so desperate for images of their honeymoon, they would provide said images, with a pointed statement as well. From 25 to 31 March, they stayed in bed at the new York’s Amsterdam Hilton, inviting reporters to shoot photos, record audio, and stand around in happy delirium, as they pronounced the need to “give peace a chance” (talking head George McGovern notes here, “I thought that was a great phrase,” just before he starts singing the song on camera, much to the filmmakers’ delight and surprise). A second bed-in in Vienna, Austria garnered more attention, and at last they started asking for meetings with world leaders. Again, they set precedents for later artists like Bono, figuring out how to use the pushily ever-present press to make their cases, whether abstract like “world peace” or concrete, like “forgiving debt.”
Interviewees provide the documentary’s most compelling politics. G. Gordon Liddy recounts seeing a candlelight vigil en route to the White House in 1969. “There were streams of them,” he remembers, and “and they all had candles that had some sort of symbolism they used to use.” He set them straight, walking up to one candle-holder and using the flame to light his cigarette. Even now, he remembers the moment with a glint of triumph in his eye, even now, not understanding the “symbolism” of his own action and arrogance. This is what Lennon understood profoundly, that small actions, especially when captured on camera as celebrities’ actions tend to be, can have profound impacts once the images start circulating. The administration’s belief that such images could be controlled now looks both quaint and prescient, as the current Bush administration uses media and news cycles much the way Lennon did back then. The strategy is premised on letting the cycle take on its own momentum, to initiate the talking point or the story, and then let it do its own damage.
Back in Lennon’s day, the administration was less adept at such manipulations, and tried instead to mount a cumbersome legal case against Lennon; in 1972, the government initiated the case that gives this film its title, trying to have him deported as an “undesirable alien.” (Nowadays, of course, this profoundly unsubtle effort looks laughable, especially considering the reach of global media—Lennon sent back in London would have been an equally if not more powerful emblem of his argument against the U.S. government and the war in Vietnam).
The case was in part jumpstarted by a very scary image, namely, John Lennon and a black man on daytime TV. Invited by Mike Douglas to host his talk show for a week, Lennon used the stage his way. He and Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale sat down to discuss poverty, war, and racism, and inspired panic in the administration. Lennon fought the legal proceedings for four years, and they pretty much dissipated following the 1972 presidential election, when Nixon won four more years based on his promise of a “secret plan” for peace. That the administration was doing far more damage to itself than Lennon could have imagined doing is a function of its fundamental misunderstanding of media. Looking back, its muddling seems almost comically inept, except that, much like today, the costs are so unspeakably high.