In the abstract, The U.S. vs. John Lennon seems divided between being the story of a place in time told through the prism of one man who embodied that time, or being the story of one man who tried to change the world. It's a somewhat scattered documentary of the state of the Vietnam War in the early '70s, the political culture that wouldn't admit defeat, and the peace effort led by one of the most famous people in human history.

That's in the abstract. In practice, it's a love letter to John Lennon, living saint of the post-hippie era. And to be honest, as much as I love Lennon-the-musician and Lennon-the-humanitarian, it's a troublingly uncritical, intellectually shallow and somewhat boring film.

Is there anything about the Lennon biography as such left to discover? No, there really isn't, and even those of us who don't really give a damn about Lennon or the Beatles know the broad lines of the story: the most popular band that will ever exist started to fracture, the band's intellectual-if-not-aesthetic frontman found solace in a new wife and a dedication to pacifist causes, "Happy Xmas," "Imagine," the move to New York. It takes scant more digging for the fuller details: Lennon's pacifist activities and his radical friends got him in some trouble with Nixon, the FBI and the INS.

How brave does a film have to be to beatify Lennon and disparage Nixon? Not at all, and yet that's more or less the whole of The U.S. vs. John Lennon. Given that the film was produced with the close help of Yoko Ono - the gatekeeper of all things Lennon - it's hardly surprising, but it's no less disappointing. The image of John Lennon as the secular humanist saviour of the world is hardly new, and in some ways appropriate; but a hagiography is a hagiography, and this film suffers for it. It refuses to ask the hard questions that would have made a fuller and therefore more interesting study: was Lennon aware that his appearance and behavior implied a desire to refashion himself as a new Christ; how did his INS woes contribute to his yearlong separation from Ono in 1974; did he understand how he was being used by the Radical Left? A brief note of darkness is seeded here and there, every time dying through inattention.

The point of the film isn't really to describe John Lennon or the anti-war movement of the early '70s, of course: it's to draw the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, and Nixon and Bush. These parallels are perfectly correct, of course (moreso than the filmmakers knew, according to Bob Woodward's latest book; Kissinger has actually contributed to the Iraq War planning, for God's sake), and the film does a good job of expressing that subtly. Then Gore Vidal's talking head comes along and makes the parallel explicit, and it's just kind of sad that at the 11th hour, the directors didn't think they could trust us.

That's why the needlessly unquestioning Lennon worship overwhelms the film: the theme is much less "this is what this man did in the 1970s" than "goddammit, why don't we have a Lennon of our own?" I'm not qualified to discuss whether John Lennon hastened the end of the Vietnam War by one hour, nor if he made it worse; but I do know that the peace generation of Woodstock and folk rock and the anti-war movement failed: they did not win a damn thing, they just made the nastiness go away for a couple decades, only to come back in a much worse and seemingly-indestructible form. John Lennon may have been the noblest and best man of the 20th Century, but his peaceful revolution failed: he is dead, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld still live, and they are the ones in charge of our current wars. We don't need to make the same mistakes of the Vietnam Era, and to argue in good faith that the peace movement of that time provides any sort of positive template is hopelessly naΓ―ve.

John Lennon deserves better than this film, and he would have known it, I think: in his interviews and sound clips that make up around half of the film's source footage, he comes across as the man that he always seems to (unsurprisingly, given how much of that footage has been used 50 other places): a little cranky, a little hopeful, and overwhelmingly self-aware. Very few celebrities, I think, are so certain and correct about what their celebrity means. Lennon knew that "John Lennon" was a powerful and influential figure, and he used that. Did Lennon believe the things he personally espoused? Yes, in the abstract - but the specific, literal way that he voiced it, a late-day flower child who really thought that songs could change the world? I doubt it. He was a savvy man, and he knew how to manipulate the media. That's who I'd like to see a documentary about, and that's who we need right now; and hoestly, that's who I see in snips and scraps throughout this well-intentioned flop.

Credit where it's due: by dint of giving full versions and cameos of 40 Lennon-penned songs in 99 minutes, The U.S. vs. John Lennon possesses what might be the best soundtrack in cinema history.

5/10