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Steal This Hoffman 

Sort of red, arguably white, very blue

Wednesday, Aug 16 2000
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The long-haired radical kid from the Pennsylvania backcountry had just returned from the 1968 Democratic Convention, battered and without a speck of love left in her heart for Abbie Hoffman. “He sat off someplace and let us all get beat,” she said, also implicating two other activist organizers of that event who survive. “That was what he wanted. Let him keep his fucking movement.” A collection of short-haired Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) activists encountered Hoffman at about that time. They were jail-savvy veterans of the Mississippi Voters‘ Registration Project and early-’60s visits to Hanoi, and recalled Hoffman lecturing them thus: “You‘re just a bunch of uptight bourgeois assholes.” One of those assholes now wonders, “Did this guy ever really accomplish anything?” But most progressives adored him when he emerged in the 1960s.

Abbie Hoffman was a designated light of our culture of youth. He named the names, defined the terms: “Corporate Pig America,” “Revolution for the Hell of It.” We had our ’60s radical consensus, which we said was innate and natural and true. But it was probably as derived from what we were told a by our media and music and literature as any other consensus ever was. I still believe that when it came to the facts of the time -- the omnipresent racism, the baneful vicious war, the lagging rights of women, the dehumanizing forces of capitalism -- our culture was speaking the truth. But does its hagiography of the radical males (no women in the Chicago 7) -- all of them deeply, shall we say, human -- who fronted that culture hold up as well? Does it need to? Or is it time for a harder look?

Survivors of the movement remain reluctant to scrutinize their back pages. SDS, for instance, still forbids journalists and outside historians at its occasional reunion gatherings. But can‘t we separate the truths of this period from the hype and the hypesters, 32 years later? I should think so. And in its better moments, director Robert Greenwald’s Steal This Movie tries to. But there are not enough such moments. The film is a good-hearted effort at a Hoffman biopic that veers from the uncensored peek to the venerating stare without nearly enough of the former.

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ABBIE Hoffman is a tremendous subject for biography. A superb political huckster and an entertaining but lousy theoretician (the burden of his best-known book was that the way to revolution was to steal what you need and drop out), he held the counterculture‘s media limelight for a decade until he was chased underground in the mid-’70s. He borrowed street-theater techniques and materials from early radical New York groups such as Bread and Puppet Theater, raised them to the highest power and took them everywhere. He shouted in the face of the Establishment while using its broadcast and print media to get his message out. He preached spontaneity, but his events were as choreographed as any Busby Berkeley musical. He lip-synched feminism but managed to simultaneously oppress the two women closest to him.

Much of Steal This Movie‘s failure lies in its casting. Good as they can be in their separate moments, Vincent D’Onofrio and Janeane Garofalo never convince you that they are even an item, let alone Abbie and Anita, the Nick and Nora Charles of Hippiedom. D‘Onofrio capers and rants and has obviously studied clips of Hoffman the Original. But he conveys none of Hoffman’s hypnotic (or was it hypomanic?) power to persuade. What he does convey well, insofar as Bruce Graham‘s script allows, is Hoffman’s waxing paranoia and manic-depression, obviously amplified by the persecution he endured from federal officials working in the COINTELPRO program. But Hoffman, equally and obviously encouraged, even participated in that very persecution by dallying in drug dealing; then, instead of fighting the resulting charges, choosing more than six years of life underground. A period during which he more or less proved, by his own example, the implausibility of the free, outlaw life he once promoted.

It is at this point that D‘Onofrio’s Hoffman becomes convincingly and increasingly repellent. It‘s hard to root for a man who, as the script has it, would give away his sole $25,000, then leave his penniless, abandoned wife and child to pay all the taxes on it. (The movie ignores the commercial publishing success of Hoffman’s two well-received books, Revolution for the Hell of It and Steal This Book. Both were published before he went underground.) This while Hoffman forms a permanent relationship with another woman, Johanna Lawrenson (Jeanne Tripplehorn), later fully tolerated by Anita in a sequence so phony you grit your teeth.

Apart from his growing mental problems, Hoffman underground appeared to have had it made. By the end of his exile, he not only had accomplished a bigamous paradise with both his women, he was a man of leisure on his lover‘s family’s Thousand Island estate and pioneering one of those genteel “Save the River” movements of the late ‘70s. He even had rapprochement with his son, america. If anything, the triumphant restoration of his full citizenship rights via a Carter-era plea bargain seemed to threaten his living standards. You don’t know better, because the movie happy-ends there. This is as dishonest as Lust for Life would be if it faded on van Gogh cheerfully painting in Arles.

Because Hoffman‘s final return to a lawful existence really kicked off the tragic last chapter in his life. He was a free man at last. But troubles kept coming: There was the failure of his next book, his heroic battle against his darkening depression, the last separation from Anita and the descent toward suicide during Ronald Reagan’s second term when another media generation began to ignore Hoffman. Tragedies tell the hidden truths of character. Steal This Movie throws in a lot of detail but withholds the real secrets of Abbie Hoffman. His life was no fairy tale. Why should it be filmed to end like one?

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