[i want a foil pope hat, too]
[is there an example of a prominent prankster not being hounded into sad submission? Off the top of my head, I can only think of Oscar Wilde]
New York Times/Arts August 18, 2000 'Steal This Movie!': That Was a Heady Time on the Left, Right? By STEPHEN HOLDEN
"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 sample.
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 services.
"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.