After the end credits to The U.S. vs. John Lennon rolled inside a campus auditorium, UC Irvine history professor and Lennonphile Jon Wiener—who sat between filmmakers David Leaf and John Scheinfeld to moderate a post-screening discussion last Thursday—mentioned the film's "uncanny echoes to the present."
The documentary traces the evolution of the Beatle and his wife Yoko Ono from artists to peace activists and, according to key members of the federal government in the early 1970s, threats to America. With a push from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon's attorney general John Mitchell, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began hearings to deport the couple.
Wiener, who appears onscreen and served as a consultant to The U.S. vs. John Lennon, for 25 years demanded under the Freedom of Information Act all secret files the feds kept on Lennon. His crusade, mounted with help from the ACLU and lawyers working pro bono, ended late last month when the government finally released the last 10 of thousands of pages they kept on the former mop top.
An academic who specializes in the history of the 1960s and the slave-era South, and a journalist/commentator for The Nation and other media outlets, Wiener could not help but notice in the movie Nixon's justification for escalating the war in Vietnam was near word-for-word what George W. Bush told the American people in a televised address two nights before the UCI screening. Responding to the president's vow to send 21,000 more troops to Iraq, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy later said, "Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam."
But Leaf claimed any eerie past-and-present similarities were purely coincidental; the project began before the Iraq War even started.
"We were determined to make a movie about what happened to John and Yoko," Leaf said. "There was to be no contemporary relevance or references. We wanted to let the audience think for themselves."
Audiences get a major prod into the here and now courtesy of the bombastic Gore Vidal, who tells Leaf and Scheinfeld's camera, "Lennon came to represent life, while Mr. Nixon . . . and Mr. Bush . . . represent death."
"We debated in the editing room cutting that out," Scheinfeld conceded. "But it wound up being such a cathartic moment and we felt the film had earned it. If anyone can make that remark, it's Gore Vidal. At that moment we knew as filmmakers our film now had a point of view."
As production ground on and the U.S. eventually invaded Iraq, Scheinfeld said he realized "the parallels" between the two wars "are extraordinary." Speaking the next night to members of the Laguna Beach Film Society, which had just shown his documentary Sir! No Sir!, David Zeiger said there would have been no film without the Iraq War.
Zeiger, who began making films in the early 1990s, kept his story about soldiers who wound up opposing the Vietnam War on the "back shelf" until the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan and began planning the Iraq invasion. "The door was finally open for this story being something with relevancy," he told the small crowd in the Festival of Arts' Forum Theatre.
Sir! No Sir! deals with in-uniform dissent that ranged from street protests to refusing to serve, and from defying battlefield orders to blowing up their superiors through a practice called "fragging." The film is dedicated to a soldier who published an anti-war newspaper at his base and another who was a protest organizer. Both eventually died from exposure to Agent Orange.
Zeiger—who was a civilian peace activist operating in the early 1970s out of the Oleo Strut coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas, where servicepeople out of Fort Hood would go to decompress from the horrors of Vietnam—initially planned to splice the stories of Vietnam-era soldiers in with those of personnel currently serving in Iraq, but military brass made that an impossibility.
Sir! No Sir! debuted in theaters last spring, and since its July release on DVD, distributor Displaced Films has shipped 500 copies to current U.S. servicepeople. Zeiger claims many soldiers in Iraq did not know they could complain about the war until they saw or heard of his film. With the new Bush surge, he expects the anti-Iraq War soldier activist movement will become a force to be reckoned with in the next six months.
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"You hear soldiers saying, 'I did not go into the military to be an occupier. I did not go into the military to fire into people's houses.' Both Vietnam and Iraq are being viewed as wars of aggression," Zeiger said.
Sir! No Sir! was not the nice night out for one lady exiting the theater.
"I did not like going to that film," she told her date. "It was depressing."
THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON WILL BE RELASED ON DVD FEB. 13. SIR! NO SIR! WILL BE SHOWN ON THE SUNDANCE CHANNEL IN APRIL.