In our current safe, don’t-rock-the-boat political climate, a biography of a 1960s radical activist might not have enormous drawing power, but Robert Greenwald has taken a commendable stab at capturing on film the fascinating, and often frustrating, career of Abbie Hoffman. “Steal This Movie!” (the title is a take-off on what Hoffman called one of his own books) is an uneven but fairly satisfying survey of Abbie’s later life, marred by untidy contruction and occasional heavy-handedness but showcasing some exceptional performances and mostly solid execution.
The picture falls into two sections, different stylistically as well as in terms of narrative. The first part, dealing with Hoffman’s creation of the Yippie ethos and his use of political theatre to attack the establishment in the late ’60s and early ’70s, is played out in exuberant strokes, with great verve and energy. The second segment concentrates on his life as a fugitive after he goes underground, leaving his wife and young son behind and acquiring a new female companion; it’s portrayed more quietly, in darker hues, concentrating on Abbie’s manic-depressive condition as well as his troubled re-emergence onto the public scene. The bifurcation doesn’t entirely work, largely because of a decision to structure the script around the device of a reporter (Alan Van Sprang) searching the past for a long-buried government “secret” which will somehow unlock the truth about its subject; not only is the scheme too obviously patterned after “Citizen Kane,” but the revelation to which it leads isn’t at all surprising, and doesn’t bear the weight of being Hoffman’s Rosebud. But while the whole might fail to hold together, most of the individual parts are very nicely effected. Director Robert Greenwald does an impressive job of capturing the feel of the period on an obviously limited budget; he manages to graft his new footage onto documentary material almost seamlessly, creating a portrait of the recent past far more authentic than those found in many far more expensive productions. He also gets superb performances from the leads. Vincent D’Onofrio might not look much like the real Hoffman, but he once again shows himself the most versatile of our younger actors, nailing the roguish, explosive character of the man perfectly (just as he did Robert Howard in the sadly underappreciated “The Whole Wide World”). D’Onofrio’s turn is a commanding one, but it doesn’t entirely overshadow fine work from Janeane Garofalo, finally given the opportunity to abandon her usual wise-cracking persona, as Hoffman’s clever, solidly-grounded wife, and Jeanne Tripplehorn as the liberally-inclined woman who becomes his partner on the lam. The rest of the cast is adequate, but this is basically a three-character piece.
Of course, one has to wonder whether a large audience will be waiting for an affectionate, even hagiographical, biography of so still-controversal a figure as Abbie Hoffman. And it must be admitted that the depiction of the protagonist’s foes, who are too often filmed, quite literally, in almost comically conspiratorial shadows, is seriously lacking in dramatic shading. (By contrast, those who were part of the radical movement might find that the story has been given too mellow a tone for comfort–Hoffman was, after all, anything but conventional). But if you can set aside your political predispositions and accept Greenwald’s film as the rather simple tale of a man with the courage to act on his convictions in the face of social and governmental hostility, and who suffered considerably as a result, you’ll find much that’s affecting and thought-provoking here. And, under any circumstances, you’ll be blown away by one of the great biopic performances in recent memory from D’Onofrio.