"Steal This Movie"

This disgraceful biopic reduces yippie Abbie Hoffman to slogans and stunts.

Published August 18, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Abbie Hoffman, the clown prince of the New Left, was so charismatic and so funny, and his life followed such an inherently dramatic course -- his radicalization and hand in founding the yippies, the chaos of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and the ensuing Chicago Seven trial and his years underground following a drug bust -- that it's a natural subject for a movie. The disgrace of "Steal This Movie" isn't just that it fails to do justice to its subject, but that, as a movie, it's barely competent.

Veterans of the '60s may be drawn to "Steal This Movie" because they lived through the events it depicts. If they turn out for it, they'll find themselves on the sort of nostalgia trip they never expected. The director, Robert Greenwald, whose credits include the Olivia Newton-John disco fantasia "Xanadu," has made the first half of the film (ending in the arrest that sent Hoffman on the lam) in the style of fragmented agitprop that hack directors seized on in the late '60s and early '70s in a desperate attempt to seem "with it."

Footage of Vincent D'Onofrio, who plays Hoffman, and Janeane Garofalo, who plays his wife, Anita, has been clumsily edited into stock footage of hippies at play, the 1967 march on the Pentagon, the 1968 riots in Chicago and re-creations of Abbie's various political-theater stunts (like proclaiming the death of money at the New York Stock Exchange and dumping currency on the traders below).

Songs of that period (in original and new versions) are laid end to end on the soundtrack, and this touristy, network-news montage is substituted for detail, for a real re-creation of the mood and texture of the times. According to the movie's production notes, Greenwald provided assistance to Hoffman during his years underground, and made this movie to give the younger generation some information about the '60s. That's a legitimate impulse. Hoffman was off the scene for so long that it's understandable younger people might not know who he is. But they aren't going to get anything from "Steal This Movie" that they couldn't have seen on some shoddy television retrospective of the era.

Bruce Graham's screenplay (based on Abbie and Anita Hoffman's collection of correspondence, "To America with Love: Letters from the Underground," and Marty Jezer's "Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel") reduces any of the issues involved to slogans like, "The personal is political." We see Hoffman as an earnest, jacket-and-tie-wearing young liberal encountering police brutality as he attempts to register black voters in Mississippi, but we don't see the process of his radicalization. D'Onofrio simply turns up in the next scenes with Hoffman's familiar shock of hair and his grubby hipster-prole clothes. Throughout the movie, rather than seeing them dramatized, we are told of events like the split that eventually drove apart Hoffman and fellow yippie leader Jerry Rubin (Kevin Corrigan). And the movie fudges the details of the drug bust that sent Hoffman on the lam. It's not clear, from the way the scene is presented, whether he really was dealing or whether he was set up.

The filmmakers understand that Hoffman was beloved because he provided nearly the sole source of humor amid the didacticism of the New Left. But it doesn't elucidate Hoffman's radical politics, and it doesn't separate what was genuine and impassioned from what was shallow, naive and opportunistic. In the movie's view, he's just a gently freaked-out liberal. And the filmmakers fail to examine how Hoffman's stunts separated him from the middle class he had to reach in order to end American involvement in Vietnam.

When Hoffman addresses the jury in his own defense during the Chicago Seven trial, D'Onofrio plays the scene as a man who genuinely wants to make people understand his dissent as part of an honorable American tradition. The movie shows the trial as the farce and outrage it was (including Judge Julius Hoffman ordering defendant Bobby Seale gagged and shackled in the courtroom) but it absolves the seven of any part in their conviction. When we see the unforgiving middle-class faces of the jury, we know the defendants' gooses are cooked. The film barely acknowledges the idea that radicals were, in terms of the goals they were after, their own worst enemies. So though we hear that Allen Ginsberg's poetry was one of Hoffman's great inspirations, we don't hear Ginsberg's later comment that the yippie tactics in Chicago threw the 1968 presidential election to Nixon. (Notwithstanding what Sen. Abraham Ribicoff famously described as the "Gestapo tactics" of Mayor Richard Daley's police.)

Stylistically, the movie settles down a little in the second half, detailing Hoffman's years underground and his involvement with Johanna Lawrenson (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who became his new companion. During that time, Hoffman took on the persona of Barry Freed, working as an environmentalist to save the Saint Lawrence River from development, efforts that won him an award from Sen. Daniel Monynihan. "Steal This Movie" does deal with Hoffman's descent into manic depression, which was probably the cause of his eventual suicide. But it slights Hoffman to suggest that some of his stunts during those years were simply manifestations of the disease. When he shows up as Barry Freed at a benefit to aid Abbie Hoffman it's more simply in character than evidence of his decline. And the rest of this section is prosaically domestic, showing Anita and Johanna as two women more concerned for Hoffman than their own rivalry, and Hoffman's attempts to establish a relationship with the son who was an infant when he went underground.

The film's biggest boner is the framing device that has a reporter interviewing Anita and the on-the-lam Abbie. The movie gives this character credit for breaking the story of COINTELPRO, Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover's secret (and illegal) surveillance of anyone they deemed a threat to the national government. But you wonder how the reporter managed because, as the movie presents him, he's probably the stupidest journalist who ever lived. He first meets Hoffman in the years after Watergate but seems amazed at the radical's insistence that the government is out to harass and destroy him. And he remains just as skeptical as the claims are repeated by Anita and by Abbie's lawyer (Kevin Pollak). Where exactly was this man's attention during the revelations about Nixon's White House and its uses of Hoover's FBI?

With so disjointed an approach, D'Onofrio can't do more than offer sporadic intensity. It's disappointing considering that Hoffman is such a plum part for perhaps the least-heralded major actor in America today. D'Onofrio pulls off Hoffman's New England Jewish accent with ease, and suggests his despair. What's missing is his manic, joyous energy. For that you'd have to look to F. Murray Abraham's brilliant performance as a character based on Hoffman in the 1978 detective movie "The Big Fix."

The acting news here is Garofalo, who has spent much of her movie career doing a variation on the deadpan sarcasm of her stand-up routine. But here, Garofalo suggests a real person who has tried to maintain an equilibrium through some very desperate times. She plays Anita's devotion to Abbie, even after he takes up with Johanna, not as submission to the sexism that riddled the counterculture but as this woman's personal ethics of loyalty. If Greenwald does nothing else right in "Steal This Movie" he does right by Garofalo. He's allowed her to shine. Freed of the self-deprecating remarks she constantly makes at the expense of her own self-image, out of the schlumpy clothes which she has held onto as a (frankly adolescent) statement against the tyranny of fashion, Garofalo is free to reveal to the camera what has been perfectly obvious to everyone but her: This is a very attractive woman.

Garofalo's Anita, who died of breast cancer two years ago, is the fullest character in "Steal This Movie." Yet her performance has to bear the burden of being the only satisfying thing in a film that otherwise squanders a rich subject. Abbie Hoffman deserves gratitude for his commitment and for a thousand laughs. He deserves better than "Steal This Movie" gives him.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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