Mayer Vishner, a member of the overground support group: "The script
oversimplifies the treachery of Cointelpro." The late folk singer
Phil Ochs' brother, Michael: "A flyer has more depth."
On the other hand, Stew Albert likes Steal This Movie--odd, because
I have always thought of him as a stoned Talmudic scholar, serving
as a source of objectivity and keen insight. "It's true to Abbie's
spirit," he says, "his unwillingness to accept the world the way
it was given to him."
Stew's wife, Judy Gumbo, likes the movie, too. "It's seamless,"
she says, "the way it shows how Abbie brought political theater
to American demonstrations."
It's as if Stew and Judy, because they want so much for Steal This
Movie to succeed, have superimposed a halo over it. But Stew insists:
"I have seen this movie in four different cities and seen the reaction
of hundreds of young people. Because of this movie, Abbie and the
Yippies will become known to a whole new generation."
Other old friends of Abbie-Ron Kovic, Bobby Seale and Ellen Maslow-like
the movie, too. "Ellen likes it because her three sons saw it and
now have a much better understanding of what their mother was about,"
Stew says. "I think I would like the movie just for this reason
alone. I certainly did not find it boring."
Fair enough, but the halo-effect metaphor definitely applies to
attorney Gerry Lefcourt, who not only figures prominently in the
movie, but is also an associate producer. He is shown on the screen
defending Abbie in the Chicago Seven
conspiracy trial, even though he didn't (he handled pretrial motions).
In a radio interview, when it was implied that he was there, rather
than deny it Lefcourt simply mentioned how many times he had defended
Abbie. He is apparently unembarrassed that William Kunstler and Lenny
Weinglass--who actually were the defense attorneys at the conspiracy
trial--are not even mentioned. Even worse, two of the defendants aren't
in the movie. At a screening, I whispered, "Hey, it's the Chicago
Upon leaving the theater, I avoided producer-director Robert Greenwald--with
whom I've had a cordial relationship--in the corridor. If he had
asked me what I thought, I would have answered, "It made me cry."
Which was true, only I had cried not because the film was inspiring,
but because it was a waste. Greenwald obviously started out with
idealistic intentions, but he remains responsible for a production
that is unrelentingly void of character development and plot structure.
The editing is choppy as cole slaw, and the screenplay lacks any
semblance of originality. The whole film reeks of misinformation.
Abbie shouts Martin Luther King's words as if they were his own--"Free
at last, great God Almighty, free at last!"--and Jerry Rubin shouts
Lenny Bruce's words as if they were his own--"In the Halls of Justice,
the only justice is in the halls!" There's a lot of shouting in
this movie, perhaps to drown out the lies--such as the lie that
Abbie's son, America, didn't know that Abbie was his father while
he was on the lam.
I had really hoped to like Steal This Movie better on my second
viewing, but it was worse, not only because it does an injustice
to a fighter for justice. It's also a terrible movie. There may
be those who will appreciate the movie's anti-war message, the lack
of hippie-bashing and Abbie's looking-directly-into-the-camera encouragement
to protest creatively. They will enjoy the courtroom antics of Abbie
and Jerry, wearing black judges' robes and, when ordered to remove
them, wearing Chicago Police Department uniforms underneath. One
young moviegoer told me, "I admit to knowing next to nothing about
Abbie Hoffman, but his life is so unique that the movie held my
Greenwald originally wanted Robert Downey Jr. to play Abbie. Instead,
Vincent D'Onofrio (also the executive producer) got the part. He's
a half-foot taller than Abbie, and his imitation Bahston/New Yawk
accent sounds like an unfortunate speech defect. Worse still, the
Abbie that D'Onofrio portrays is the Phantom of the Media, an out-of-context,
one-dimensional rabble-rouser, spouting slogans and hackneyed rhetoric.
The movie is an unsubtle hodgepodge of attempted re-enactments
of Abbie's Greatest Hits--throwing money at the New York Stock Exchange,
levitating the Pentagon, protesting at the Democratic Convention,
the Chicago conspiracy trial, saving the Saint Lawrence River--interspersed
with Abbie's marriage and lots of clips from stock news footage
to remind us of flower children, police riots and political assassinations.
It's presented in flashbacks, but unlike Citizen Kane, Abbie is
alive when it begins and alive when it ends. Yes, it's a happy romantic
ending for a tragic unromantic reality. The audience only learns
from a where-are-they-now subtitle in the closing credits that Abbie
committed suicide in 1989.
Abbie once told me that a group of filmmakers wanted to follow
him around in order to produce a documentary, but he declined. I
asked him why. He smiled and replied, "I wanna make my own myth."
Here, we're presented with Greenwald's limited vision of Abbie's
myth. He happened to find a copy of To America With Love: Letters
From the Underground--a poignant collection of correspondence Abbie
exchanged with his second wife, Anita, while he was a fugitive ducking
15-years-to-life for a drug bust. Anita gave me an inscribed copy;
Abbie wrote his inscription on a yellow post-it and mailed it so
that I could put it next to Anita's inscription. Anyway, a few years
ago, Greenwald optioned the book, plus Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel
by Marty Jezer.
Anita is portrayed by Janeane Garafolo, who sought out the part.
The movie was made while Anita--who appears briefly in a courtroom
scene--was dying from cancer. She had two movies in her mind at
the time. In her latter years, she had become intrigued by the twin
towers of mysticism and conspiracy. She read books and magazine
articles about those subjects, and listened to Art Bell's late-night
radio show. She believed there was life on other planets and accepted
the notion of certain UFO aficionados that extraterrestrials have
been making a movie of the earth's progress. "I hope I remember
to ask to see that movie," she told me.
"Somehow, Abbie will see the movie," she said, referring this time
to Steal This Movie. She felt ambivalent about it. "When I mentioned
the paucity of other characters, Robert [Greenwald] replied that
on a low-budget film we just can't afford a lot of major players.
This is Hollywood."
On her deathbed, she told the Leffs that she thought Steal This
Movie was "mediocre," yet her greatest regret was not living to
attend the opening. I chose not to ask, "Well, if Abbie can see
it from the afterlife, why can't you?"
Abbie would undoubtedly relish the paradoxical symbolism of the
movie opening with Jimi Hendrix's gut-twisting version of "The Star-Spangled
Banner," since that same song now serves as background music in
a TV commercial for Pop-Tarts. He would fume at the minimized and
distorted portrayal of his third wife, Johanna Lawrenson, who had
been his running mate while on the lam. She was his main co-conspirator
after he emerged from six years of hiding.
Al Giordano, a friend of Abbie and Johanna, now editor of the online
Narco News, complains that Steal This Movie erases Johanna from
the '80s, "from the CIA-on-campus trial, for example, where she
did half the work." A speech that Abbie gave at Vanderbilt University
in real life has been morphed into his summation at that trial in
the movie version. In real life, Johanna was in court; in the movie,
Anita is. Because Johanna refused to participate in the movie, Greenwald's
assistant told Giordano: "Well, if Johanna won't talk to us, we'll
just eliminate the years that Abbie spent underground from the movie.
We don't need the facts of the underground story to make this movie."
So we get the unfactual appearance of Abbie at the "Bring Abbie
Home" rally (two years earlier he did show up, in a manic stage
of his clinical manic-depression, at a memorial for Phil Ochs).
And the unfactual underground scene where Abbie and young America
urinate together outdoors in an attempted act of scatological male
bonding reminiscent of Adam Sandler's similar star turn in Big Daddy.
Lest you conclude that this pisser of a scene was plagiarized,
Steal This Movie was basically in the can long before Big Daddy
was released; Greenwald just couldn't find a distributor. Then came
the WTO protests in Seattle, and suddenly Steal This Movie was considered
a bankable project. So now it's officially a Lions Gate Film. Those
protesters could not have foreseen such ironic fallout from their
demonstrations. Completing the circle, Steal This Movie was even
screened in Seattle as a benefit for the Community Action Network,
which had been so involved in organizing the WTO protests.
Greenwald orchestrated a shrewd marketing plan by staging such
prescreenings in various cities as benefits for progressive organizations--Refuse
& Resist, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the National Lawyers
Guild, the Green Party, Pacifica's KPFK--and scheduling its opening
on the day after the Democratic Convention. But the question remains,
will word-of-mouth help or hurt ticket sales? Buzz is a two-way
street. At one point in Steal This Movie, Abbie shouts, "Dull is
deadly!" That maxim applies to the movie itself. Ebert and Roeper
may have given it two thumbs up, but Abbie would definitely give
it two middle fingers.
is the author of Sex, Drugs and the Twinkie Murders: 40 Years of
Countercultural Journalism, just published by Loompanics; his CD,
Campaign in the Ass, also has just been released by Loompanics.
For a free copy of his newsletter, The Realist, send a stamped,
self-addressed envelope to Box 1230, Venice CA 90294.