Ron Frehm/AP Photo Files

John Lennon and Yoko Ono join a protest on Feb. 5, 1972, in front of British Overseas Airways Corp. offices in New York.

The U.S. Vs. John Lennon

Stars: John Lennon, Yoko Ono

Directors: David Leaf, John Scheinfeld

Rating: PG

**** (out of five)

Imagine: America is mired in an unpopular, apparently unwinnable war; an artist takes it upon himself to speak out, resulting in the American government mounting a campaign to silence him by any means necessary.

The war was in Vietnam; the artist was John Lennon. And the saddest thing about David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s new documentary The U.S. Vs. John Lennon is how completely contemporary it all feels.

Using the now-standard mixture of archival footage and contemporary interviews, with considerable participation from Lennon’s notoriously uncommunicative widow Yoko Ono, Leaf and Scheinfeld lay out the persecution of Lennon (who’d decided, after the breakup of the Beatles, to make his home in New York City as a resident alien) by the U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization, which spent five years trying to deport him back to England.

The pretext for the deportation order was Lennon’s 1968 marijuana conviction; as the singer’s lawyer points out, there were plenty of other foreigners in the country with similar marks on their records, and somehow the only one who was asked to leave was the guy putting up protest banners in Times Square.

The footage of Lennon at his most acerbic and anti-authoritarian is the heart and soul of the film, giving us a much-needed glimpse of the man at his most vital and engaged. Sure, some of the couple’s stunts seem wincingly naïve now — like the Bed-In — but those banners are brilliant in their elegance and simplicity.

“War is over if you want it.” Imagine that.

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