John Lennon was a fascinating paradox: a utopian misanthrope. But there's precious little of Lennon's legendary crankiness on display in The U.S. Vs. John Lennon, a fawning hagiography that diligently shaves away the ex-Beatle's rough edges and knotty idiosyncrasies. Directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld stop just short of digitally adding a halo and angel wings to Lennon's image. Their documentary gives audiences the St. John of the leftist popular imagination, a longhaired prophet of peace who died for humanity's sins, reducing Lennon's politics to hollow sloganeering and bumper-sticker slogans. A more critical documentary would undoubtedly have explored the contradictions inherent in the socialist leanings and power-to-the-people rhetoric of an insanely wealthy, egomaniacal pop star. Here Lennon gets a free ride in an account of his anti-war protests and consequent run-ins with the Nixon-era U.S. government.
At worst, the film feels like an unintentional parody of liberal documentaries that transform complex topics into elaborate cinematic peace signs. In order to justify their hyperbolic portrayal of Lennon's extra-musical significance, the filmmakers elevate Lennon's fuzzy utopianism to the level of a profound political philosophy and treat self-indulgent publicity stunts like Lennon and Yoko Ono's bed-in as if they were revolutionary pop art landmarks on the level of Warhol's Campbell soup cans. The filmmakers assemble an impressive array of interview subjects (and also Geraldo Rivera) notable mainly for their narcissism and hero worship (or in the case of a now-tubby, suspender-and-floppy-hat-clad Bobby Seale, their unfortunate resemblance to Fred Berry of What's Happening!! fame). Lennon famously claimed the Beatles were "bigger than Jesus." Leaf and Scheinfeld's insufferable lovefest takes that quote to its logical extreme by unconvincingly trying to posit Lennon as a countercultural messiah, Jesus with an electric guitar and nasal whine.