Abbie Hoffman was such a colorful hero of the 1960s counterculture that it's surprising Hollywood hasn't capitalized on his story until now. It's also just as well, given the disappointing quality of "Steal This Movie," directed by Robert Greenwald from Bruce Graham's screenplay.
Youth-centered social protest is back in style, as events at this summer's political conventions have underscored. But neither its friends nor its foes will find much enlightenment in this uneven bio-pic.
If the '60s were a time when you couldn't trust anyone over 30, then Hoffman was over the age limit before many of his exploits took place. Born in 1936, he moved from Massachusetts to California - without shaking one of the world's thickest New England accents, judging from Vincent D'Onofrio's portrayal - and started his activist career in the Berkeley campus protests of 1960. Equally interested in political ideas and guerrilla theater, Hoffman put his revolution-touting talents at the service of many left-leaning causes, from the free-speech and civil-rights crusades to the steadily growing effort to end the Vietnam War.
His fame peaked in 1968, when he helped establish the Yippie movement - or Youth International Party, to be a tad more formal - and used it to shake up the Democratic National Convention, already split by dissension over Vietnam and other issues. His trial with the so-called "Chicago 7" earned headlines everywhere, but his life afterward was more troubled and ambivalent, partly because of ongoing psychological problems.
Police surveillance, concern for his physical safety, and a narcotics charge led him to go underground in the mid-'70s. After several years of hiding he resurfaced in rural New York State, helping environmentalist causes under a false identity. He finally surrendered to the authorities in 1980 and went to jail for a year. He died in 1989.
Hoffman had a private life and a political calling, and "Steal This Movie" throws a frequent spotlight on the people closest to him - his second wife, his little boy, the woman he lived with in the underground years. That's a reasonable approach for the filmmakers to take, but there are problems with the way they've handled this aspect of their story.
The movie steers toward emotional clichs, oversimplifying Hoffman's public exploits so we'll have more time to gawk at his personal peccadilloes. This trivializes both his strong political convictions and the entrenched attitudes of the powers that be he tried to overthrow.
All of which raises a perennial question about movies dealing with controversial subjects. Is it permissible to streamline their events and simplify their ideas so they'll reach a wider audience? Or must one treat such material as thoroughly as possible, since a half-baked account may leave false impressions?
There's no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions, but "Steal This Movie" supports the latter position. It might be better to leave Hoffman a half-forgotten legend than to revive his fame on such superficial terms.
*Rated R; contains sex, vulgar language, drug-related content.
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