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IN SHORT: Biopick of a once upon a time counterculture "star". [Rated R for language, drug content and some nudity, 111 minutes]
It seems that every time we review a movie with a strong political theme, which necessitates our talking politics in the review, we get a small stream of angry email attacks that usually go along the lines of "I read your site for movie reviews, not politics! Good-bye forever!" Well, folks, thanks for your patronage, 'cuz we are going to talk politics and we are going to reveal our very true and very tenuous links to the real Abbie Hoffman.
That being said, I don't think I'll ever see a movie project that covers the 1960s and 70s that will ever "get it right." This country was so traumatized by everything that happened in the period roughly 1965- 1975 that, regardless of what "side" you were on, nothing is going to reflect your personal recollections accurately. Steal This Movie, a dramatization of the life of Abbot H. Hoffman, liberal, radical, civil rights worker, Chicago 7 defendant and federal fugitive makes no bones about it's pro-Hoffman status. That means its view of those years places Hoffman at the center, as a persecuted and justifiably paranoid man. Hoffman's real life medical problems and eventual suicide are touched upon, but downplayed. In its own way, Steal This Movie attempts to put its spin on history and leave Hoffman as a heroic figure for all generations.
Thing is, in the 70s Hoffman was viewed as a kind of heroic figure. On the run after a drug bust that he claimed was a federal set up, Hoffman's life played out as one tale after another of government persecution and harassment. Regardless of impressions made in the Vietnam era or in Chicago, the thinking of the post Watergate pre-J. Edgar Hoover's death among a lot of people supported the idea that the government had its personal enemies list (well, Nixon did). The film uses the flashback investigations of a journalist to tell Hoffman's story and investigate the FBI's COINTELPRO activities. This may make Steal This Movie look like a history lesson and while its recreation of history may make those who didn't experience those times wonder what the hell is going on, the performance of principals Vincent D'Onofrio (as Hoffman) and Janeane Garofalo (as second wife Anita) lend a heart to the story that keeps it from sinking like a stone. Ignoring the existence of Hoffman's first wife and two children, this film focusses on a period beginning with the formation of the Yippies and ending with Hoffman's emergence from the Underground in 1980, give or take a year on either side. It is never made clear how an idealistic civil rights worker transforms from smuggling Black Americans to voter registration offices in the deep south to the radical clown who staged disruptive actions at the Wall Street Stock Exchange or who met his future wife while hijacking a public bus. Then again, the Sixties were like that. They didn't make sense.
While his public actions were provocative, the play between Abbie and Anita is actually quite domestic. For all his radical actions, the film makes a strong statement that Hoffman was as mainline as any other husband; sure he disrupted public events but that was his job, which brings into the picture cohorts such as Jerry Rubin (Kevin Corrigan) and Tom Hayden (Troy Garity, Hayden's real life son), the rest of the Chicago 7 and lawyer Gerry Lefcourt (Kevin Pollak). The Chicago Riots and Trial and drug bust that sent Hoffman underground follow in quick succession and, for those of us that remember 'em, are the high point of the film.
With Anita and son America left behind, Hoffman goes underground into anything but a glamorous lifestyle. Along the way "Barry Freed" meets, befriends and falls in love with Johanna Lawrenson (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and finds a place to settle, in upstate New York. There, old passions surface as he becomes involved in organizing environmental activists to protect the St. Lawrence Seaway. Freed did a good job. Gained notoriety. Good citizen awards from the Congress of the United States. It was just a matter of time until someone recognized the fugitive Hoffman, hiding under the beard that Freed wore. Also in the picture, a growing mental illness -- manic depression with occasional psychotic episodes -- and a mindset that had the man convinced that the lithium prescribed by a doctor was in reality a government conspiracy to chemically control the populace. The man was cracking up -- from loneliness, separation from family, the schizophrenic lifestyle coupled with mental illness -- it's a pathetic portrait and sympathetically shown in the film.
Which brings us to 1979 and a story that isn't in the film. Hoffman "surfaced" to do a number of hours of interviews with Chris Stanley, then of DIR Broadcasting, for a syndicated news series produced by Stanley and Wendy Maxwell. Yours truly did work on the project as well. We were all terrifically excited about our dance with the underground and took exceptional steps to be prepared for the inevitable FBI raid on the premises. Which never happened. As simply summarized in the film, "Hoover's dead. No one cares [about you] anymore."
Hoffman's reemergence is, pretty much, the end of the movie. The only disservice done by the film is its reluctance to confront the reasons behind Hoffman's suicide several years later.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Steal This Movie, he would have paid...
You've got two choices to see D'Onofrio in a lead role this week (the other being the mainstream oriented The Cell. Both are challenging, in their own way. This one is preferred by this site.
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