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'Steal This Movie!'

'Steal This Movie!' sets the record straight on hippie leader Abbie Hoffman

Friday, September 29, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

I can't recall a more joyous "biopic," as Variety calls them, nor savoring one with more delicious, malicious retro-glee than "Steal This Movie! The Abbie Hoffman Story."

You will certainly love it -- assuming, of course, that you, too, are an aging ex-hippie, anti-Vietnam War leftist baby boomer. If you were on the other side of the political fence then, you will certainly hate it. If you were too young or not yet born, you will be mesmerized or baffled, either of which is a good reason why you should see it.


RATING: R for language, drug content and some nudity

STARRING: Vincent D'Onofrio, Janeane Garofalo, Kevin Pollak, Kevin Corrigan, Jeanne Tripplehorn

DIRECTOR: Robert Greenwald

CRITIC'S CALL: 31/2 stars


There was no greater, larger-than-life folk hero (or villain) of the American '60s, and he is played as such -- to perfection -- by Vincent D'Onofrio ("The 13th Floor," "Men in Black," "Ed Wood," "Full Metal Jacket"). Hoffman led three lives -- the Herbert A. Philbrick of the left: social activist, Yippie! anarchist and white-collar impostor. He called himself, among other things, an "existential freak," a "psychedelic bolshevik," a full-time cultural as opposed to political revolutionary. But, as the inventor of anti-war guerrilla theater, he was both.

In "Steal This Movie!" director Robert Greenwald brilliantly renders Hoffman's two most brilliant stunts: In the Yippie! "invasion" of Wall Street, Hoffman & Co. hurled dollar bills onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, goading the brokers into humiliating themselves by scrambling for the bucks. In Washington, they "levitated" the Pentagon -- and the blood pressure of J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon.

The media never fully grasped the put-on nature of his outrageousness and obliged him with maximum international publicity during some 40 arrests -- most notably for flag desecration when he wore a stars-and-stripes shirt to a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing. "I want to be tried not because I support the National Liberation Front -- which I do -- but because I have long hair," he said. "Not because I support the Black Liberation Movement but because I smoke dope ... I want to be tried for having a good time and not for being serious."

Me, I'm forever grateful for having witnessed one of his most colorful and surreal escapades during a 1968 Halloween rally of the "New Coalition for Humphrey-Muskie" at Manhattan Center on West 34th Street -- an 11-hour attempt by Democratic regulars to win back the disillusioned supporters of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy for "The Humbug," as Hoffman called him. The unlikely mistress of ceremonies that night was actress Shelley Winters. Just after she introduced the main speaker, John Kenneth Galbraith, up jumped a dozen Yippies in raincoats, shouting "Humbug! Humbug!" They dumped a pig's head on Galbraith's lectern, and then -- nude beneath their macs -- flashed the audience and ran off. Winters dissolved into hysterical screaming. Galbraith's reaction was -- what else? -- economical: He never moved a muscle, waited a full 10 minutes for the security chase and commotion to die down, then went on stolidly endorsing Humphrey as if nothing had happened.

Hoffman viewed such antics as a consciousness-raising expose of "Law and Odor" at home and in Vietnam. "I'm one of those people who does free speech instead of just 'believing' in it," he said. He either "spoke" to you or threatened everything you stood for.

Not all of Hoffman was political, and neither is "Steal This Movie!" The fine screenplay by Bruce Graham and Robert Ward, based on "To America with Love: Letters from the Underground" by Abbie and Anita Hoffman, is a serious love story as well. "If I'd've been born a woman, I'd've been Anita," he said of his wife, superbly played by Janeane Garofalo. She was a counterculture heroine in her own right, as victimized as her husband.

Hoffman was convinced the government was out to destroy him, and he was right. Nixon personally ordered 24-hour FBI surveillance of him, Yippie rallies were to be "disrupted through infiltration," informants spied on him, drug busts were constant. To escape prison, he went underground in 1974, a bitter manic depressive, leaving Anita impoverished to raise their son "america" on her own for six grim years -- while Abbie fell in love with another woman (Jeanne Tripplehorn). The most visible, provocative radical of his time paid a heavy price for it. Increasingly depressed, he committed suicide in 1989 at 52.

The aging process and death itself are considered a kind of comeuppance for ex-radicals, and Hoffman, the chief architect of the hippie movement and its opposition to the War, seemed more deserving of comeuppance than most. The Associated Press coverage of his death, for instance, omitted mention of his years underground but did not fail to inform that he was "fully dressed" when he died.

Greenwald's respectful film is an important, long-overdue antidote to the media's shoddy treatment of his life and death. It's graced with fine supporting performances -- especially by Kevin Corrigan as Jerry Rubin -- and excellent editing that melds the narrative drama with documentary footage.

Don't believe the revisionist professors and politicians: It was Abbie Hoffman -- not Nixon, Ford or Congress -- that stopped the Vietnam War and discredited a rotten legal system in the process. Remember the gagging of Bobby Seale? The Chicago Seven trial? The infamous Judge Julius Hoffman? "Steal This Movie!" makes you remember them -- and Abbie's immortal contempt-of-court rebuke to His Honor: "I can't even use my last name anymore because it's been disgraced by you, Julie!"

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