>'Steal This Movie!': That Was a Heady Time on the Left, Right?
>By STEPHEN HOLDEN
New York Times/Arts
August 18, 2000
>"Steal This Movie!," Robert Greenwald's likable but muddled screen biography
>of the charismatic Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman, raises a ticklish
>question: how can a contemporary film "do" the late 1960s in a way that
>isn't a sentimental retread of countless documentaries that have trotted out
>the same old television news clips to push the same old nostalgic buttons?
>Those filmmakers who have tackled the '60s, most notably Oliver Stone, have
>typically pulled out every emotional stop, exalting the era's Dionysian
>pretensions along with its self-righteous paranoia and apocalyptic cant.
>Such movies only reinforce a myth that, its excesses and burnouts
>notwithstanding, the era was American democracy's glorious last moment of
>endless possibility. Despite the film's obvious fondness for its subject and
>for the era, "Steal This Movie!," adapted from two books -- Abbie and Anita
>Hoffman's "To America With Love: Letters From the Underground" and Marty
>Jezer's "Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel" -- doesn't sanctify either the '60s
>or the main character, whom Vincent D'Onofrio plays with an appealing,
>self-conscious gusto. The way the movie (quite accurately) remembers the
>period, it was messy, frenetic and unglamorous. A lot of what happened on
>the left had an ad hoc, improvisatory quality.
>Antiwar marchers may have descended on Washington by the hundreds of
>thousands to protest the Vietnam War, but those (like Hoffman) who actually
>had the nerve to stick flowers in soldiers' rifle barrels while urging them
>to join them were few in number.
>Strapping and heroic, D'Onofrio may not physically resemble the more
>diminutive Hoffman. And the actor's odd Boston-meets-Brooklyn accent sounds
>somewhat forced. Yet his portrayal of this excitable, mischievous proponent
>of "the politics of joy" still emerges as a reasonable enough facsimile.
>Hoffman was a charming merry prankster, an inspired political comic whose
>cheerfully anarchic message was decidedly nonviolent and upbeat. His gift
>for politically charged charades and hilarious verbal jousting reached a
>dizzying summit during the notorious trial of the so-called Chicago Seven.
>That trial, whose grim, punitive judge, Julius Hoffman, made a perfect comic
>foil to the younger Hoffman's potty-mouthed clown, is really worth a whole
>movie in itself, and it's a shame that "Steal This Movie!" gives us only a
>The source of Hoffman's downfall, the movie suggests, was his own willful
>naivete. He just couldn't believe that his playfully provocative political
>theater could make people so angry and vindictive. Later diagnosed as
>manic-depressive, Hoffman had to go underground in 1974 and lived on the run
>under various disguises for the next seven years as "Barry Freed." As Freed,
>he even became an environmental activist of some note in upstate New York.
>In 1980 he surrendered to the government and spent a short time in prison.
>Nine years later, he died, a probable suicide. The screenplay (by Bruce
>Graham) notes that he didn't like taking his lithium medication because it
>robbed him of his inner spark.
>"Steal This Movie!" uses the familiar and rather awkward device of having
>the story unfold in flashbacks and voice-over reminiscences, as an
>interviewer (Alan Van Sprang) prepares a major article for an unidentified
>national magazine. When they meet, it is 1977, and Hoffman is living a
>fugitive, hand-to-mouth existence, taking low-paying temporary jobs in
>constantly changing locations.
> >From those desperate days the story jumps back a decade to the happier
>times. In some of the movie's warmest moments, he meets his future wife,
>Anita (Janeane Garofalo), and sweeps her off her feet. Garofalo gives a
>tender, finely shaded portrait of a woman of remarkable flexibility,
>strength, humor and loyalty.
>Such antic public happenings as Hoffman's organizing a group to surround and
>"levitate" the Pentagon, and his trip to the New York Stock Exchange, where
>money was strewn and burned, are briefly glossed. In its eagerness to touch
>on so many of the events from this heady period, the movie gives them too
>short a shrift. Although we meet Hoffman's fellow activists Tom Hayden (Troy
>Garity) and Jerry Rubin (Kevin Corrigan), they remain peripheral.
>It's only after those heady days have ended that the movie comes into sharp
>dramatic focus to tell the disheartening tale of a man worn down by a
>governmental vendetta until he begins to question (and to lose) his own
>sanity. Once the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover and goaded by Richard Nixon,
>decided Hoffman was an enemy of the state, the bureau made his life
>miserable by spying on him, trying to bust him for drug possession, and
>playing assorted dirty tricks. It was all because he had the effrontery to
>embarrass the United States government. The persecution could be read as the
>paradigmatic revenge of a classically square father upon a disrespectful,
>disobedient hippie son.
>Even in exile, Hoffman had emotional support. Although cut off from Anita
>and his young son, America, he was tended by a new woman, Johanna Lawrenson
>(Jeanne Tripplehorn), who stuck by him in spite of his increasing
>instability. Another hero of the movie is its associate producer Gerald
>Lefcourt (Kevin Pollak), Hoffman's lawyer, who took no fees for his
>"Steal This Movie!" is saddled with a fake inspirational ending in which
>Hoffman delivers a stiff, upbeat courtroom speech. The Crosby, Stills and
>Nash anthem "Carry On" follows. Such phony uplift only makes the sad story
>seem even sadder.
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