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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 19.0° F  Fair
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The U.S. vs. John Lennon
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Speaking of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, The U.S. vs. John Lennon documents a time when our fearless leaders tried to deport one of the most beloved figures who ever graced our shores. That the ex-Beatle was also feared and loathed by the Nixon administration, which expanded the war in Southeast Asia while swearing that "peace is at hand," only reaffirms Lennon's power as a radical artist and an artistic radical. "I'm an artist first and a politician second," he said at the time, but what the documentary shows is that it was impossible to separate the two as Lennon evolved from merry prankster to agent provocateur to voice of his generation. Nixon and his cronies weren't wrong to be afraid of him. Where they went wrong was in thinking they could do something about it.

Or did they go wrong? We learn that, as a result of having his phone tapped and being trailed by the FBI, but especially by having to spend so much of his time fighting the INS, Lennon had to lower his voice just as 11 million 18-to-20-year-olds were being added to the voter rolls. And, lest we forget, Nixon won reelection in a landslide. But as Lennon wittily points out in the documentary, "Time wounds all heels." Not long before he finally got his green card, Nixon got his pink slip. And those tumultuous years, when "Give Peace a Chance" rivaled "The Star-Spangled Banner," finally calmed down. You say you wanted a revolution? Well, maybe we got one, a collective consciousness-raising experience courtesy of a man who chose to spend his honeymoon in bed with his wife and pretty much the entire rest of the world.

Directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld have footage of that and of just about everything else that happened during those heavily publicized years when Lennon decided to exploit his fame to get his message out. There's even a clip of one of those Bagism events, wherein John and Yoko, in the interest of "total communication," spoke to reporters from inside a large canvas bag. The movie is, in part, "The Ballad of John and Yoko" all over again, having been made with Ono's approval and participation. And what's interesting to realize is how much sense their Fluxus-derived happenings make after all, how humane their approach was. And how humorous. John and Yoko could so easily have fallen into the radical-chic trap, like their Dakota neighbors, the Leonard Bernsteins. Instead, they blithely skipped around it, whistling as they did so.

Meanwhile, the government was tightening the screws. Drawing on Jon Wiener's book Gimme Some Truth, the documentary traces the years-long effort to have Lennon declared an "undesirable alien." And it perhaps shouldn't surprise us that nobody associated with that effort (with the exception of professional crackpot G. Gordon Liddy) has chosen to defend the government's tactics. Most of them are dead, of course, time wounding all heels. But the wounds, as Gore Vidal points out right before the movie fades to black, are as fresh as yesterday's body count in Iraq. One of the great tragedies of Lennon's own early death is that we'll never know what he would have made of our present predicament. And would he have been surprised, do you suppose, that, 25 years later, we still won't give peace a chance?

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