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Steal This Movie!

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Steal This Movie!

Starring: Vincent D'Onofrio, Janeane Garofalo
Director: Robert Greenwald
Rated: R
RunTime: 111 Minutes
Release Date: August 2000
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Kevin Corrigan, Donal Logue, Kevin Pollak, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Alan Van Sprang, Troy Garity

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

For the past couple of decades in America, we bear witness to a traditional assumption turned upside down, the supposition that parents as a whole are more conservative than their kids. Stare with disbelief at yuppies who concentrate more on their cell phones than on the people they are with, their brunches at the Odeon, their trips to Jamaica and their Gucci loafers, and you can believe that the young no longer try to push their aging parents to the left. Quite the contrary. What the majority of this country's population find difficult to accept is that life here was not always so complacent, a desire to make a bundle was not always the principal object of students in college, and a belief that politics was a job to be left strictly to the bureaucrats was not always the nation's creed. Believe it or not, kids, politics was not always just the subject of editorials in the good gray Times, which debated American intervention in Nicaragua and the Gulf as though these were issues meant to be studied for a good grade on a midterm. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Vietnam War propelled a large segment of the nation's young people into taking active and dangerous stances, getting themselves surveilled, stomped and otherwise harassed by agencies of the Johnson and Nixon administrations.

Abbie Hoffman, arguably the most colorful of the nation's protesting youth and founder of the Youth International Party or Yippie! was an unlikely candidate for the honor of turning many of the sixties' flower children into political activists. A nice Jewish boy from Worcester, Massachusetts, Hoffman was born in 1936, got his Bachelor's from Brandeis University, got arrested in Mississippi for registering Blacks during Freedom Summer, and sold the products of poor people's coops in Mississippi two years later in a crafts store in New York City. Best known for his rejection of American corporate culture, he and some pals threw money from the visitors' gallery of the Stock Exchange in 1967, causing a riot as the traders scrambled for the cash. During an anti-war demonstration, he led 50,00 people to surround the Pentagon to try to levitate the building by their psychic energy. When the Yippies held a so-called Festival of Life at the 1968 Democratic National Convention while protesting American involvement in Vietnam, violence led to arrests which in turn led to the Chicago Seven Trial--whose principal image was that of Black Panther defendant Bobby Seale, bound and gagged to a chair for disrupting the court. When Hoffman was arrested for selling cocaine and faced a life sentence, he disappeared for six years, and became an environmental activist under the false name of Barry Freed.

Does what you just read sound exciting? Moving? Poignant? Maybe not. But in the hands of Robert Greenwald, who directs "Steal This Movie" (ironically with the financing of hedge funds on Wall Street), the story of Abbie Hoffman and his influence on American politics becomes everything that the printed word lacks. While the picture is unabashedly pro-Hoffman and pro- just about every activity entered into by him and his friends and followers, it deserves to be seen by a large audience for bringing the man's endeavors to glorious life, conveying not only the excitement of the anti-war protests but even more important the price that Hoffman paid in loneliness--in the tremendous emotional pain that the man went though when he was unable to see his wife and child for six years except for brief periods of time under a pseudonym. The misery which literally drove him crazy is conveyed in such a trenchant manner that we can understand what made Hoffman take chances by letting down his guard and in ultimately revealing his actual identity to his child while still in hiding.

Abbie Hoffman, who died by suicide in 1989 and is portrayed by Vincent D'Onofrio, would have been pleased by the casting. D'Onofrio, who is eight inches taller than the activist, is better looking and speaks more eloquently than the guy he's portraying, successfully adopting Hoffman's native New England accent. Director Greenwald takes us to Hoffman in the late seventies, showing the fugitive from justice as he contacts a magazine reporter by pay phone, hoping that a compassionate article would allow him to return to society without serving time. From that interview, Greenwald cuts to the key points in the man's life, beginning with his meeting on a bus with his future wife, Anita (Janeane Garofalo).

The energetic, even charismatic Hoffman proves to be a brilliant organizer, gathering thousands of like-minded young people to a march on the Pentagon in opposition to the Vietnam War. These actions lead to the consequent surveillance set up by the J. Edgar Hoover's FBI on him and his friends in the leadership of the Yippies, particularly Jerry Rubin (Kevin Corrigan), Tom Hayden (Troy Garity), Abbie's wife Anita, and his lawyer, Gerry Lefcourt (Kevin Pollak). Photographer Denis Lenoir adds verisimilitude to the proceedings by injecting grainy, newsreel-type pictures into the movie to give the story the feel of a documentary. A large segment of the movie deals with Hoffman's utterly romantic meeting with Anita, who joins him in activities such as the anti-war demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the bliss of their union marred by Hoffman's eventual bonding while on the run with the Swedish-American beauty, Johanna Lawrenson (Jeanne Tripplehorn).

At times, however, Greenwald seems to be talking down to his audience as though he were filming a lesson for a high- school social studies class while throwing in high drama to come across to an adolescent audience as cool. On the whole, however, Greenwald--and his producer Jon Avnet-- made the right decision by eschewing a talking-heads documentary and going with this penetrating and lively biopic (however one-sided) on an ordinary fellow who made a name for himself in the sort of youthful political activism that seems all but dead today.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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