Why are all documentary filmmakers liberals?
That’s one question that comes to mind while watching The U.S. vs. John Lennon, a chronicle of how the US government persecuted the late ex-Beatle and his wife Yoko Ono. In town promoting the movie, David Leaf, who co-directed with John Scheinfeld, objected to the “L” word.
“I’m not a liberal,” he says. “I’m an American and I’m a journalist, and I’m a storyteller. I don’t look at this movie as a liberal screed. I look at it as a story of what happened when a Republican president did everything in his power to stifle dissent.”
Note the past tense: “did.” The president in question is Richard Nixon, though there are moments in the film that seem like echoes of today’s news.
“In the movie,” says Leaf, “we see government harassment for anyone who exercises a dissenting point of view. That seems to have resonated sadly in recent years. In no way are we making a comparison or promoting our politics through this film, but I’m thinking of one young woman who was watching the film, and there’s a clip where Nixon is talking about the South Vietnamese troops being able to take over for the American troops and he says, ‘I have not and do not intend to set a timetable for their withdrawal.’ And this woman was like, ‘I don’t believe what I’m hearing.’ It’s not a direct analogy, but it gives people a sense that history is repeating itself.”
Though some aspects of the film may seem familiar, others might not, especially to younger viewers.
“There’s a void of knowledge of who John Lennon was and why he mattered. Certainly people under 30 know he was in the Beatles, they know he wrote ‘Imagine,’ they know he was murdered. I’m not sure how much more they know, and they certainly don’t know the context in which he and Yoko launched their campaign for peace and attracted the Nixon administration’s attention. That’s like a fable from ancient history.”
Not that the film presents a rounded portrait of Lennon. Authorized by Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono, the film portrays Lennon as not far removed from sainthood. How much control over the project did Ono get in return for her cooperation?
“She was cagey after she first met us,” Leaf recalls. “As the film unfolded and she got to know us and we sat through those extensive interviews, she became more open because we weren’t asking her questions about the lost weekend; we weren’t talking about the breakup of the Beatles. That’s not the movie. This movie is focused on John and Yoko’s campaign for peace and how they came under attack. And that’s a complicated but focused story, and we did what we said we were going to do.”
Even as such, the film seems one-sided. For example, the only person heard from with an opposing viewpoint is G. Gordon Liddy.
“Everyone who makes a documentary has a point of view,” Leaf says. “I think it’s clear what ours is. That said, we wanted to tell the story as truthfully as possible and present all sides of it. But the conservative commentators we approached to participate in this film were not interested. William Safire, George Will, William Kristol, etcetera. In a sense, the Nixon administration is indefensible, and so who wants to go on camera and say what they did was right?”
That kind of explains why all documentary filmmakers are liberals. Or at least not Republicans.
“I don’t know that that’s true,” says Leaf. “Perhaps the truth has shades of gray, and you have to be willing to understand the complexities of the world: that there is good and evil, but nobody’s perfect.”