Political Film Society - Newsletter #80 - September 1, 2000

September 1, 2000


Steal This Movie!Founder of the Yippies in the 1960s, Abbie Hoffman is sympathetically portrayed in the biopic Steal This Movie!, produced and directed by Robert Greenwald. Early in the film, Abbie (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) is registering African Americans to vote in Mississippi in 1965, only to receive a punch in the face from a police officer of a small rural town. By 1967 he spearheaded the movement against American involvement in the Vietnamese Civil War, ran a "free store" so that poor African Americans can obtain donated clothing in New York City, and was a self-styled "cultural revolutionary" advocating free love, free land, free housing, free medical care, and free marijuana. In 1968 Hoffman became one of the Chicago Seven, charged with incitement to riot in the streets outside the Democratic National Convention after repeatedly being denied a permit to demonstrate peacefully in a nearby public park. When Richard Nixon became president, FBI Director Herbert Hoover was ordered to set up a "Cointelpro" (counterintelligence / propaganda) operation to harass and neutralize the anti-war and Black Panther movements. Arrested and brutalized many times and ultimately charged with an offense that meant possible life imprisonment, Hoffman was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for nearly two decades while abandoned by most of his erstwhile Yippie compatriots, who preferred fame or family (but returned as consultants on the film). For nearly a decade, he went underground, changed his name to Barry Freed, drifted from town to town, but ultimately could not resist becoming prominent in a grass roots movement, Save the River, to stop pollution on the St. Lawrence River. Since his new prominence meant that the FBI would inevitably track him down, he surrendered to the authorities, which were no longer so concerned about his views.

To tell the story, the film focuses on a journalist (a composite of several) seeking to write a story about Abbie. The journalist interviews Abbie, his wife Anita (played by Janeane Garofalo), and his pro bono attorney Jerry Lefcourt (played by Kevin Pollak), so retrospective accounts are dramatized almost in the manner of a docudrama. Rich in personal information about Hoffman, we can only admire his genius at unusual forms of protest, such as throwing dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, but he was also manic depressive. His promiscuity is portrayed as inevitable, given his high level of energy in manic phases, while deeply in love with his wife Anita, who comforted him during depressive phases. In Abbie’s own words in the film, the movements he supported so dramatically eventually produced a powerful civil rights movement, a pullout from Vietnam, the sexual revolution (and the gay rights movement), and the environmental movement. We could add that he also exposed fascist governmental operations and hypocritical limousine liberals, removing the shades from the eyes of an entire activist generation. Many lines in the film are based on epigrams from his famous publication Steal This Book! (1971), personal accounts from To America with Love: Letters from the Underground (1976) which he and Anita co-wrote, and Marty Jezer’s biography Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel (1992). The film project began with the approval of Anita, who was a consultant to the filmmakers before she died (from cancer) in 1998, nine years after Abbie committed suicide. Steal This Movie! makes clear that Hoffman was flamboyantly trying to narrow the gap between masses seeking democracy and elites preferring oligarchy, an agenda that is very much before us today. As a film that reveals so much truth about the politics of the 1960s and 1970s while vindicating posthumously the memory of a true democratic revolutionary, the Political Film Society has nominated Steal This Movie! for two awards -- as best film exposé and as best film promoting the need for increased democracy. MH