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Five years after Yippie founder Abbie Hoffman goes underground to avoid a drug-related prison sentence, he contacts a reporter to get out the story of the FBI's covert spying, harassment and inciting of violence they then blame on the Left. The skeptical reporter interviews Anita, Hoffman's wife, a single mom on welfare in New York City; Hoffman's attorney, Gerry Lefcourt; and others. As they talk, we see Hoffman's career in flashbacks, from early civil rights organizing through the trial of the Chicago Eight. While underground, as mental illness takes its toll, he meets Johanna Lawrenson, and an odd family develops: Abbie, Anita, their son, and Johanna. Will vindication ever arrive? Written by
Abbie Hoffman stimulated some of the most off the wall and entertaining postscripts of the Vietnam War era with extemporaneous performances mixing public defiance and radical street theater. Some of his turns in the air had a particular genius, as when he spread dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and the traders plunged to the floor fighting over it without any concern for the situation, reflecting a precise metaphor for what they always do otherwise.
More than anyone else in contemporary American history, he was able to secure headlines and reap national interest just with the daring nerve and overconfidence of his imagination. From what I know of him, one of my favorite things he did is in the film, when he declared that he and fellow Yippie Party affiliates would levitate the Pentagon, he enticed a mammoth gathering. President Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover didn't find it funny, but that was the aim, that everyone have a joke at their expense.
The movie traces the trajectory of Hoffman, played by the curiously cast Vincent D'Onofrio, from the early 1960s, when he was a civil rights worker in the South, to the late 1970s, when he had gone underground and was an esteemed environmental campaign organizer. Down this wayward road of his, he married a woman played by loved actress and liberal Janeane Garofalo, started a family, then holed up.
His first family, under relentless FBI surveillance, one of the film's biggest shocks, was able to meet with him time and again, but in the meantime, he met and fell in love with another woman, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, which I'm actually glad he does because Jeanne Tripplehorn is a good actress who doesn't seem to get enough work anymore. That the two women got along rather well and were able to split Hoffman denotes their liberality and that he truly was too much for any one person to live with.
That was emphatically true as it became obvious he was suffering from manic depression. His outrageous activities in the 1960s were equalled by profound despair in the 1970s, and his boundless oomph and imagination might have been nourished by a disorder that was a helping hand earlier in his life, a serious drain later. I can relate, as I have an anxiety disorder that I believe would likely turn into manic depression eventually if I did not find the right medication.
Steal This Movie is a clever title based upon Hoffman's famous Steal This Book , not a fashionable title with its publisher. It suggests a time when theft was hardly a crime, because the highest corporate echelons of capitalism leveled the playing field for the people. The movie, directed by Robert Greenwald, has an enormous amount of material to cover, and does it fairly clumsily. Information enters the screen from too many directions. Subtitles treat the material like a documentary. Spoken narration treats it as memory. Actual newsreel footage coexists with reconstructions. This clearly comes from Greenwald's partiality to documentary film-making, as he is the director of the vital piece Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War On Journalism. As a feature narrative film, Steal This Movie takes a little more time to stabilize and finds its pulse, which in a sense is hardly a flaw in the manner in which it would be in another movie because I feel like Hoffman himself would have made similar films had he been a filmmaker.
Abbie Hoffman is seen wearing an American flag shirt and getting in trouble for desecrating it; the movie cuts to footage of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans yodeling while wearing their flag shirts. Hoffman insisted that the flag represented all Americans, including those opposed to the war; he resisted efforts of the Right to annex it as their exclusive ideological banner.
Vincent D'Onofrio has an interesting task, playing the role, since Hoffman seems on autopilot much of the time. He is charismatic and has an instinctive grasp of the dramatic gesture, but can be infuriating on a one-to-one level; the women in his life sometimes wonder whether he really sees and hears them, and can understand what he puts them through. Both Garofalo and Tripplehorn are valuable to the film because they supply the minimum necessary number of eyes through which we see a man who couldn't clearly see himself.
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