Abbie Hoffman Meets the Pepsi Generation
There is a moment in the 1990 film Flashback, when fictional hippie fugitive Huey Walker (Dennis Hopper) turns to his FBI captor (Kiefer Sutherland) and says, “The ‘90s are gonna make the ‘60s look like the ‘50s!”
Looking back at the film a decade later, it is apparent that Huey’s prophecy of America’s coming social turmoil could not have been further from the truth. Today, the 1960s in the U.S. are remembered as a series of colorful, turbulent images of foreign war and domestic social upheaval not like the 50s at all. The 1990s offer, as counterpart to this tumultuous era, sterile images of black and white smart bombs hitting Iraqi targets and of Generation X, an army of slacker youth that stayed on the couch instead of taking to the streets. This is not to say that recent history is bereft of social injustice or political dissidence. But the overwhelming reaction to these issues in terms of media coverage and organized protests ranges from short-lived saber rattling to outright apathy. Earlier this month, while small numbers of protestors (young and old) demonstrated outside the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, most of America simply yawned and changed the channel.
Into this disinterested political climate enters Steal This Movie!, a cinematic biography of 1960s radical Abbie Hoffman. A member of the Chicago Seven (a group of counterculture activists put on trial for disrupting the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago), Hoffman waged a public and highly visible war against what the New Left deemed a variety of abuses by the United States’ military-industrial complex, including the American war in Vietnam, as well as systemic racism, sexism, and classism. Hoffman organized a massive demonstration at the Pentagon to protest the war and burned money at the New York Stock Exchange in order to protest corporate greed. These activities landed him in hot water with the Nixon administration and Hoover’s FBI, and brought him under the relentless scrutiny of the FBI’s now notorious “counter-intelligence” program, Cointelpro.
The film begins in 1977, with Abbie (played by the incredibly versatile Vincent D’Onofrio) having already gone underground in an effort to elude arrest on a drug charge. Nearly a decade after his protest-leading activities, Abbie is initially depicted as a paranoid wreck, suffering from delusions of persecution by unseen government agencies. Nonetheless, he attempts to convince reporter David Glenn (Alan Van Sprang) to write an article about his experiences and expose the conspiracy against him. Glenn’s first response is, in effect, “Who still cares about Abbie Hoffman?” As he proceeds with the article, however, Glenn interviews both Hoffman’s lawyer Gerry Lefcourt (Kevin Pollak) and his former wife Anita (Janeane Garofalo), among others, and learns that Hoffman’s seeming paranoia is based in a healthy fear of the institutional wrath he has incurred as a result of his years of fervent protesting.
The film devotes its first half to reliving Hoffman’s protest years, in part through a series of black and white and grainy, 35 millimeter flashbacks. Actual footage of the Pentagon protests is interspersed with staged scenes of Abbie speaking with the soldiers aligned against him. We see Hoffman trying in vain to convince one soldier in particular to desert his post and join the protestors. After Abbie fails, the film inserts a melodramatic footnote about the G.I.‘s untimely death in Vietnam. While such scenes may be intended to inspire an appreciation for Abbie as a free-thinking radical who bucked the system, they accomplish just the opposite by their banality. In an era where the 1960s have been commodified, packaged, and distributed in such diverse forms as a television miniseries, feature films (Born on the Fourth of July, Forrest Gump), a number of documentaries, and two Woodstock sequels, the cinematic collage of Hoffman and his colleagues marching in the streets of New York, being opposed by uniformed soldiers in Washington, and attending outdoor rallies in Chicago comes across as, at best, unoriginal, and at worst, tremendously cliched. Couple this with the soundtrack’s covers of popular 1960s songs by contemporary artists, such as Ani DiFranco and Sheryl Crow, and the result is a tired tribute that mirrors the many other attempts to rehash this decade for today’s consumers.
The merit of Steal This Movie! lies in its depictions of Abbie’s life underground. After his arrest for his involvement in a cocaine deal, Abbie decides to leave Anita and infant son (the famously named america Hoffman) and go into hiding to avoid jail. Abbie becomes Barry Freed and maintains contact with his family only through an elaborate system of coded letter writing. Over the next six years, the stress of separation from his family and being on the lam soon takes its toll on Abbie, as evidenced in the film’s unflinching depiction of Hoffman’s mood swings (he was eventually diagnosed as manic-depressive). Despite meeting another woman, Johanna Lawrenson (Jeanne Tripplehorn), with whom to share his secret, panic and anxiety threaten Abbie’s sanity. D’Onofrio is at his best when portraying the alternately manic and tortured Hoffman, trapped between jail and a life of nomadic anonymity. In one scene he is reduced to a fit of tearful rage, screaming at Johanna, “I am Abbie Hoffman!” again and again, in an effort to reassert his former identity. D’Onofrio’s portrayal humanizes the icon and communicates the sorrow and sacrifice he endured as a result of his beliefs and agitation. While the film gives short shrift to Hoffman’s suspected suicide in 1989, its depictions of the activist’s life on the run offer insight as to what may have prompted such an act.
The film ends more or less happily, though, with Abbie returning once again to prominence as an activist after Glenn’s article uncovers the embarrassing details of the government’s actions against Hoffman during the 1960s. We last see Hoffman in the 1980s, again on trial at age 50, this time for organizing a protest at a college campus. Hoffman delivers a speech in his defense, addressed to what was then the youth of America, encouraging them to effect change and to stand up against corporate abuses in the years to come. While noble in sentiment, Hoffman’s words show just how out of touch he, and the makers of this film, truly are. Hoffman’s words clearly did not inspire the same level of activism in the 1980s and ‘90s as he mobilized during the ‘60s. This lack of participation continues even today, as protests receive the same kind of attention and inspire the same amount of political consciousness as a three-ring circus. Media coverage and popular perception of these often serious events relegate them to the level of an amusing sideshow. While it is clear that there is as much to protest today as there was in the 1960s, fewer people are doing so and with less successful results. Steal This Movie!, then, is best understood as a tribute to an icon, a decade, and a mindset long vanished from the American landscape.
As a call to arms, however, the film fails miserably to understand the disposition of the majority of its audience, already familiar (and bored) with the flag-waving idealism of a bygone era. As the philosophies, iconography, and music of the 1960s have been filtered through time, they have also become simplified, stereotyped, and neatly contained by popular media. It is unfortunate that the film does not do more to avoid these stereotypes in telling the story of a character who was a truly unique and complex part of U.S. history.