Two documentaries premiering at the festival take a look at musicians who were attacked for opposing American wars. The U.S. vs. John Lennon chronicles the former Beatle’s conflict with Nixon’s government over Vietnam, while Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing follows the country trio as they’re attacked by their right-wing fan base for opposing the invasion of Iraq.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon is easily the better of the two films. Consisting almost entirely of talking heads, the film offers accounts from a number of Lennon’s comrades, but also whistleblowers from within Nixon’s administration and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. We also see archival interviews with Lennon in which he expresses the reasons for his pacifism and demonstrates his famous wit (“time wounds all heels” is a personal favourite).
I was pleasantly surprised by Lennon’s intelligence. It’s easy to get the impression that all he had to offer was a megaphone and platitudes, but co-directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld reveal that there was genuine thought behind his actions. I don’t think I’m the only one to have made this mistake. Even a song as political as “Imagine,” with its anti-religion, anti-nationalist, anti-capitalist message, is often mistaken for feel-good fluff.
To be sure, Lennon had some questionable associates. One can debate whether or not the Black Panthers were a necessary component to the civil rights movement, but their advocacy of violence should have been anathema to a self-styled man of peace. And yet, it’s easy to side with Lennon against the disgusting likes of Nixon, Kissinger, and Hoover. The infuriating latter half of the film is very effective in its focus on FBI phone tapping and attempts to deport Lennon, ostensibly due to a marijuana conviction in Britain.
It’s clear that Leaf and Scheinfeld mean their film to be a comment on the contemporary anti-war movement. It’s impossible to entirely deny the parallels between Lennon’s story and the times we live in, but of the many differences between Vietnam and Iraq, one looms largest over this film’s narrative: the draft. The involuntary enlistment of citizens into an armed conflict was what made Vietnam so unpalatable to large swaths of the American public. This was a time when “Support the Troops: Bring ’Em Home” carried significant moral weight, and comparing Vietnam’s conscription to the all-volunteer army in Iraq just doesn’t work.
Worse still, the only interviewee shown making an explicit connection between Nixon and Bush is Gore Vidal. This parallel might have had more resonance if not drawn by a man who still believes it was wrong for Roosevelt to make war with the Nazis and thinks that the United States was behind the 9/11 attacks.
Even so, I was really enjoying this movie. The music was great, the story compelling, the politics generally admirable. And then Yoko Ono had to ruin things by claiming that the U.S. government assassinated John Lennon. Sure, it’s a dramatic ending to the film, but anyone who knows anything will walk out baffled and irritated. It’s not as though I don’t think Nixon’s gang was capable of assassination, but they were long out of power in 1980. Who gave the order, Jimmy Carter? Rogue elements within the government? Next you’re going to tell me that the United States was behind the 9/11 attacks.
Though the material is similar, Barbara Koppel’s Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing is a very different film. Instead of relying on archival footage and post-facto interviews, Koppel had the benefit of following the Dixie Chicks as they recorded their most recent album and faced the fallout of saying they were “embarrassed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Though her relationship with the band only began in 2005, Koppel had access to footage shot by a crew documenting their 2003 tour. This means that Shut Up and Sing contains the only existing footage of Natalie Maines uttering her infamous words. (Actually, her words don’t even warrant “infamous”. Is not liking the President really that big a deal? I’m sure the fools protesting the comment weren’t exactly fond of the last few Democrats in the Oval Office. And really, it’s not as though Maines called Jesus gay or claimed Muhammad was deceived by Satan. How about just “famous”?)
As a result of the comment, the Dixie Chicks go from being America’s sweethearts, performing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, to being labeled “Saddam’s Angels.” They’re right not to apologize and their enemies are almost universally idiots, but after seeing how John Lennon was treated, the plight of the Dixie Chicks just isn’t all that impressive. Lennon incurred the wrath of a sitting President, but even George W. Bush pays lip-service to the Dixie Chicks’ right to criticize him. Sure, he also dismissively says “if a few people don’t want to buy their records, their feelings shouldn’t be hurt” but that doesn’t even crack the top 100 stupidest things he’s said.
Maines also isn’t as likeable as Lennon. While he kept his wit and composure throughout his ordeal, Maines exhibits no such grace under pressure. I certainly admire her for not backing down, but her bull-headedness too often results in her refusing to accept the input of her bandmates and manager. Koppel is renowned for fairness to her subject, so this can’t be attributed to malicious editing. Then again, considering how often she had to hear people calling her a traitorous slut, I guess it’s only reasonable to expect she’d be irritable.
What I haven’t found so easy to accept is an exchange in which Maines expresses outrage at Bill Maher for hoping the war is a success. She quickly back off when a member of her entourage defends Maher, but I get the impression that for once she’s just trying to avoid conflict. I was also against the war in 2003, but I never sympathized with the notion that a failure in Iraq would only hurt Bush. Three years later Iraq is a mess, and I hope Ms. Maines feels vindicated. I just feel a bit like crying.
But I really am nitpicking here. As annoying as such scenes can be, it would simply be dishonest to lump the Dixie Chicks and other moderate critics of the war in with the extremist crowd. While the latter claims that George Bush is Hitler and Moqtada al-Sadr is George Washington, Maines and company hardly represent a fifth column. They’re just three women who love their country and couldn’t help but express anger at actions they felt were unjust. What’s more American than that?
As much as I admire Lennon’s and Maines’s bravado, I’ve recently learned the hard way that real courage is telling a bunch of critics that you like The Fall but think Tsai Ming-Liang’s latest is a dud. I doubt even Sasha Baron Cohen has the cojones for that.