Using Yippie founder Abbie Hoffman as a vehicle to explore America’s counterculture, “Steal This Movie” is a valiant but seriously flawed attempt to belie the notion that if you remember what you did in the ’60s, you weren’t there. Written by Bruce Graham and helmed by Robert Greenwald with undeniable conviction, pic is nevertheless harmed by serious aesthetic contradictions. While Hoffman was the living ’60s symbol of anarchistic, joyful, anti-establishment hell-raising, pic is ineffectively straightforward, at times operating within every biopic cliche. Even with potent distrib heft of Lions Gate and a magnificently galvanizing perf by Vincent D’Onofrio as Hoffman, there will be much resistance to this paean to radicals of yore by younger auds who don’t know their Yippies from yuppies. Domestic and offshore B.O. will surely forge no mass movement.
Insider references that will go over the heads of most crowds start with the title, which puns on Hoffman’s provocative tome “Steal This Book,” a kind of post-McLuhan response to both the Beat poets who deeply influenced him and more traditional, serious fellow radicals, such as Tom Hayden. Film becomes overwhelmed by the era’s political complexities and the information with which it’s stuffed that’s sure to open the eyes and ears of those too young to know about the antiwar movement and illegal U.S. government efforts to quell it.
Pic unconvincingly posits Hoffman — just one of several government targets — as the ultimate martyr of FBI-engineered suppression. And, missing a golden opportunity to examine a naturally visual subject, “Movie” barely explores how Hoffman, along with fellow Yippie Jerry Rubin, understood and deployed exploitation of electronic media to grab primetime attention for the New Left.
Rather than take a page from Hoffman’s feisty and often wacky playbook, pic immediately makes clear that it will be gentle rather than kick-ass: Hoffman, still operating underground in 1977, contacts journalist David Glenn (Alan Van Sprang) to tell his story, lending Glenn a list of leads including long-suffering wife Anita (Janeane Garofalo) and loyal attorney — and an associate producer on this project — Gerry Lefcourt (Kevin Pollak).
Script is quickly subsumed in an uninspired this-happened-then-that-happened structure, which, along with obvious budget restraints, lends pic the feel of a small-screen project. Brief but vivid flashbacks, shot in processed color and high-grain B&W, recall fact that Hoffman began his activist work with black voter registration efforts in the Deep South, followed by antiwar organizing on campuses.
As by-the-numbers as pic already feels, D’Onofrio makes it clear that he will be this story’s heart and soul, pouring every ounce of energy into each moment. His characterization of Hoffman’s skill at street actions as well as seducing the impressed Anita is the work of a thesp operating at full throttle. Overcoming even the worst of script’s many lapses into stiff speechifying and obvious message-mongering, D’Onofrio creates a three-dimensional, charismatic hero ready to take us on an unpredictable ride.
Still, perf unintentionally overwhelms all that’s around it, and finally doesn’t compensate for pic’s missing parts. One gap emerges as Hoffman develops the Yippie angle, the ultimate blending of anarchism and good ol’ American gimmickry, which is never explained here. More critically, though narrative is burdened with considerable flashing back and forth in time and weighted with much concern regarding Hoffman’s family life with Anita and their young son, fellow activists such as Hayden (played by Troy Garity, son of Hayden and Jane Fonda), Rubin (Kevin Corrigan) and Stew Albert (Donal Logue) are relegated to background status. Though the New Left was typified by raging, colorful internal debates over tactics and ideas — with Hoffman the leading voice of a less-stratified, more spontaneous and theatrical protest style — pic ignores this opportunity for dramatic conflict where Hoffman’s and others’ true characters could shine through.
Enough witty moments accent the saga, however, to sustain attention, even while Hoffman’s circus approach to politics takes an increasingly grim downward turn as J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon wage their counterintelligence war on lefties. Storyline tracing skeptical Glenn’s gradual confirmation of the FBI’s Cointelpro program is pic’s weakest, most predictable element, and not nearly as affecting as Hoffman’s psychological decay (including diagnosis of bipolar disorder), worsened by years spent underground. Pic economically develops Hoffman’s surprise love affair with Johanna (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who refers to him by his alias, Barry Freed. As ’60s embers fade, Hoffman’s re-emergence into public is treated here with excessive uplift, including a finale courtroom speech that would make even Stanley Kramer blush.
Project is most significant for providing major opportunities for D’Onofrio and Garofalo (too often placed in supporting positions) to command large portions of screen time. Garofalo is in another universe from her typecast role as the super-sarcastic sidekick, with her vivid Anita embodying all of the era’s joys, fears and contradictions. Though appearing relatively late on the scene, Tripplehorn is consistently interesting and appealing, providing emotional layering that doesn’t exist in the script. Pollak is forced to play a character whose only job is to provide information, while rest of cast of fine thesps appear to be here for visual background and little else.
Soundtrack is laced with a considerable period song list, yet most tunes are by now too familiar to strike much of a chord. Tech credits are fair, but restaging of such key action as the ’68 Chicago riot looks fake next to intercut newsreel footage.