During the recent IMF/World Bank meeting in Washington, D.C., various groups showed up to protest - among other things -- the organization's alleged fattening of Western pockets as the expense of underdeveloped, third world countries. Some of those protesting, however, seemed to be along just for the ride.
Upon spotting a small, brick-carrying faction of such protestors, one of my wife's coworkers asked this young and rowdy bunch why they were protesting. While they couldn't name any specific causes or issues behind their massing, they did respond that it was "their time" to protest, as if they seemed to believe that it was their preordained, God-given right to do so.
Of course, it's the Constitution and not a deity that guarantees such rights in America and allows those with a dissenting point of view the ability to protest - in a peaceful manner - whatever currently has their shorts tied up in a knot. It's somewhat sad then, that many of today's protestors do so only because it's the thing to do - like getting a tattoo or body piercing - and don't recognize or appreciate the efforts put forth by those before them who objected to many more important, volatile and far-reaching issues.
Most everyone is familiar with those associated with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, yet an equally passionate issue of the time concerned America's involvement in the Vietnam War. While many still remember and seethe over Jane Fonda's infamous anti-war actions of the time, a far more prominent activist by the name of Abbie Hoffman is probably barely known by today's protestors, despite the notoriety he gained in the '60s.
Those both familiar and oblivious to the man can get a retrospective taste of Hoffman via the film, "Steal This Movie!" an episodic and haphazard, but occasionally engaging look at the man who made protesting an art form in and upon itself.
A pseudo-documentary as crossed with a standard biographical drama, the film - named after Hoffman's literary prank of titling a self-authored book, "Steal This Book" - benefits from a standout performance by Vincent D'Onofrio ("The Cell," "Men in Black") as Hoffman. Yet, it suffers from director Robert Greenwald's disjointed assemblage of facts regarding the protestor who was known for dumping money onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange and being part of the notorious Chicago Eight that attempted to disrupt the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Greenwald ("Breaking Up," "Xanadu"), who works from a screenplay by playwright turned screenwriter Bruce Graham ("Anastasia," "Dunston Checks In"), presents the story as a "present day" tale (set in 1977). Various characters then recount their lives and times with Hoffman that then lead to associated flashbacks comprised of both dramatized and archival footage (or what looks like it).
While such an approach will give the uninitiated something of a glimpse into the era, the man, and the issues he protested, it doesn't go into any of them in any great detail. Nor does the film manage to grab the viewer as well as it should have - failing to allow us to love, hate or really even understand the man, despite the inclusion of what are supposed to be some riveting, late in the game, dramatic speeches.
What saves the film, and ultimately makes it relatively easy to watch, is the stellar performance delivered by D'Onofrio. Whether playing a trouble marine recruit in "Full Metal Jacket" or a bank-robbing sibling in "The Newton Brothers," the talented actor easily and credibly becomes those he portrays, near completely blurring the line between actor and character. While I have no firsthand recollection of how the real-life Hoffman looked, sounded or moved during his heyday, D'Onofrio puts so much into his performance that it's never difficult to accept his portrayal of the man as the true thing.
Janeane Garofalo ("Mystery Men," "The Matchmaker") does a good job embodying his fellow "Yippie" wife and thankfully avoids having to play - for the umpteenth time - the wisecracking, sarcastic sidekick character. Jeanne Tripplehorn ("Timecode," "Mickey Blue Eyes") shows up relatively late in the game, but manages to deliver a good performance as Abbie's second love.
As far as the rest of the roles and performances are concerned, the historically prominent characters of Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden are mostly shortchanged (although trivia buffs will enjoy the fact that Hayden's real-life son, Troy Garity, plays him in this film), while talented performers such as Kevin Pollak ("The Whole Nine Yards," "Deterrence") and Donal Logue ("The Tao of Steve," "The Patriot") are pretty much wasted in what amount to either expository or filler roles.
Those looking for a probing/in-depth examination of Hoffman the protestor, husband and troubled man and/or the complex issues of the era will probably be disappointed in the way in which all of that is superficially covered here. While it's often difficult to cram a lot of real-life, biographical history into a non-epic film, it can be done (as it was in the far superior "The People vs. Larry Flynt" which is thematically similar to this film). Unfortunately, that doesn't happen here, and while the performances from the leads manage to keep the viewer interested, it's never to the full extent that one would hope for. "Steal This Movie!" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.