Published August 1, 2000
It’s almost unbelievable that at this distance of time someone could make a movie about Abbie Hoffman which is utterly without any sense of irony about or detachment from the eccentric views of the late Yippie leader. They used to say about the Bourbons that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, but Louis XVIII was nothing like so tenaciously obtuse as the by-now aged hippie aristocracy, or at least that portion of it which dominates our world- beating entertainment industry. Steal This Movie, written by Bruce Graham and directed by Robert Greenwald blithely gives Hoffman (Vincent D’Onofrio) credit not only for stopping the war in Vietnam but for the successes of the civil rights, environmental and women’s movements as well. He’s the the Walter Mitty or, to bring the comparison up-to-date, the Al Gore of the old New Left — or he would be if he hadn’t killed himself in 1989, on the eve of the triumph of the one political development for which he really does deserve some credit — if that’s the right word.
For the film’s attempted transformation of a pathetic prankster and intellectual lightweight into one of the seminal figures of the age only reinforces our sense of the essential nullity he stood for. Not only the “anti-war movement” (which really ought to have been called the “don’t-draft-me movement”) of the 1960s but most of the new political causes that were contemporary with it and subsumed under the umbrella of “the movement” tout court were not, or were only minimally, matters of politics as traditionally understood. They were, rather, political theatre. Politics has always been part theatre, but always before the theatrics had serious real-world causes and consequences. Abbie and his Yippies invented the idea of political theatre for its own sake. That was the point of Revolution for the Hell of It, which gloried in its detachment from anything like real political issues.
Thus was born the politics of moral posturing which has had such a belated success in the post-Cold War mainstream with the election of that well-known feeler of other people’s pain and hippie manqué, Bill Clinton. Yet only by reading between the lines of Mr. Graham’s clunky screenplay can you begin to see the connection between the two. Instead he tries to impart some wholly factitious and unhistorical drama to a story which had nothing but drama in real life, by using the by-now hackneyed framing-device of an investigative journalist, David Glenn (Alan Van Sprang), who tells the story as a by-product of his quest. This is to find evidence that will expose the allegedly “secret” counterintelligence agency, COINTELPRO, and its persecution of Mr Hoffman. When the fictional Glenn gets a peek into Abbie’s FBI file he announces that “the son-of-a-bitch was right!”
In reality, COINTELPRO was discovered and dismantled in the course of the Watergate investigations, and any legal problems which troubled Abbie Hoffman after that — including his arrest for drug-dealing, after which he skipped bail and “went underground” — were more than likely to have been of his own making. And even if they were not, there is nothing staler than stale paranoia. Abbie’s belief in a government conspiracy against him, in his persecution and pursuit by the duly constituted authorities of the American Republic for no other reason than the heterodoxy of his political views, however justified it may have been at the time, now seems merely quaint. The idea can only create a sense of wonder (or, in some of us, regret) at a time when the government saw hippies as subversives instead of being run by them.
Of course, the political theatre is the heart of the Abbie Hoffman story, and the film gets as much of this right as is consistent with presenting Hoffman as a hero. His consort, Anita (Janeane Garofalo), and Johanna (Jeanne Trippelhorn), the mistress he takes while on the lam, do what they can to make him seem a serious person. “That is, like, the sexiest guy I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Anita on first meeting him. Abbie, for his part, says “If I had been born a woman, I’d have been Anita.” True love! But the nearest we ever get to political thought is when Abbie announces that “The problem with liberals is that they see every side of an argument; and what happens then? Paralysis!” To him and his allies, Socialism means “everybody gets some” and this seems quite enough of a reason to “dive into the fray of life and help start a revolution.”
“We’re there, dude!” echo the Seattle and convention protestors across the abyss of time, though few of them are likely even to know who Abby Hoffman is. The best joke occasioned by this movie — which at one point shows its subject causing a disruption at the New York Stock Exchange by throwing money onto the trading floor and announcing that “We proclaim the death of money and the birth of a new society” — comes in Mr Greenwald’s comment to an interviewer from the New York Times about how he got his movie financed. “We got very lucky,” he said. “There was something called a hedge fund. I’ll never understand what it is, but they had the money and wanted to invest it.” Somehow, I think Abbie would have approved.