One wouldn’t normally link “The Brady Bunch” and Abbie Hoffman together in a game of word association, but this sanitized look at the late, infamous 1960’s Yippie radical at times veers dangerously close to sitcom territory. On the one hand, this is surprising, considering the deadly serious cause — free political expression — that Hoffman most frequently championed. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense in light of his hard-earned reputation as a political satirist and outrageous court jester.
“Steal this Movie!,” Robert Greenwald’s unabashedly fawning biopic, explores the life and times of the controversial political activist and anti-war demonstrator. The film opens in the late 1970s with a paranoid Hoffman, still in hiding following his railroading at the legendary Chicago Seven Trial a few years earlier, contacting a friendly magazine reporter in the middle of the night in hopes that a sympathetic article will ease his re-emergence into society.
The clandestine interview launches us into a clever reconstruction of Hoffman’s life, aided extensively by the recollections of his long-suffering wife Anita (Janeane Garofalo) and his attorney Gerry Lefcourt (Kevin Pollack). Anita recalls how she met the raw radical (played with winning charisma by Vincent D’Onofrio), and guides us through his rising influence among those opposed to the war in Vietnam. Along with the Lefcourt, she describes the omnipresent FBI scrutiny and Hoffman’s ultimate arrest and trial for “inciting” the riots and subsequent police crackdown at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. The film is most poignant, however, when it chronicles the years Hoffman spent on the run, becoming estranged from Anita and his young son America. Hoffman adopts the moniker Barry Freed, becomes an environmental activist, and takes a mistress who’s unaware, at first, of his infamous alter identity. As the truth emerges, Hoffman, his wife, his girlfriend, and his initially resentful son join forces and guide his eventual unrepentant re-emergence into society.
Although Bruce Graham’s script relies too heavily on spoon-fed, plot exposition dialogue, perhaps inevitable, given the tremendous amount of pertinent information, “Steal this Movie!” would make a decent historical primer. Though overly sympathetic and a little too freshly-scrubbed for its own good, the film effectively introduces today’s audiences to this rapidly receding, highly contentious time in our nation’s history. DP Dennis Lenoir helps here, as his commendable job of recreating the grainy feel of newsreel footage, when appropriate, almost gives the film a documentary feel at times.
“Steal this Movie!” is undoubtedly history-lite. Still, solidly cast and executed, history-lite is better than history forgotten.