It might have worked if this movie had been frustrating in the way that the peace movement or the 60’s as a whole were frustrating. But this movie about the life of Hippie/Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman is unsatisfying for a far more mundane reason — a script with a wavering point of view.
Abbie Hoffman emerged from the demonstrations at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention as the spokesman for rebellious youth. He was genuinely committed to the causes of ending the war in Vietnam and economic justice. He was an inventive strategist and a leader who could inspire others. He was always good copy and gave great quotes. And he was a self-absorbed, angry man who suffered from bipolar disorder.
Back when Abbie Hoffman was engaging in guerilla theater antics like dumping dollar bills on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and running a pig for President, there was a popular saying: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t really out to get you.” That is Hoffman’s story. This movie adopts a “Citizen Kane”-style structure, with a journalist interviewing Hoffman’s associates to determine whether he was crazy or a victim, and the conclusion of the movie seems to be that he was both.
We see Abbie (Vincent D’Onofrio) with civil rights workers in the South, then losing his short hair, suit, and tie to connect with college students protesting the war. He meets Anita (Janeane Garofolo), who describes him as “crazy and joyous and behind the fun were serious ideas about the redistribution of wealth” who dreamed of “a revolution of artists, poets, and wizards.” He knew that “satire is very effective against tyranny,” and said that “sacred cows make the best hamburgers.” Hoffman worked with others to embarrass the Nixon administration and show the possibilities for change to people who were unhappy with the way things were. He and seven others were arrested for their protest at the Democratic convention. They seized the opportunity of the trial to make their case about what they saw as fundamental injustice in American life with antics that landed them on the front page of every newspaper.
The government saw them as such a serious threat that they engaged in a campaign of disinformation and persecution. Hoffman was charged with selling cocaine and escaped underground, leaving Anita and their infant son, america. Although he and Anita stayed close, he fell in love with another woman, Johanna Lawrenson (Jeanne Tripplehorn). He cannot resist becoming involved, helping to organize an environmental protest. But the pressures of living underground and the increasing chemical imbalence of the bipolar disorder make him fearful and angry.
The movie is sympathetic to Hoffman’s efforts and balanced enough to show us the parallels between Hoffman and his enemies. Each side calls the other immoral. Each recognizes that, as J. Edgar Hoover said, “ridicule is one of the most potent weapons we can use.” Garofolo is strong and tender as Anita. Ultimately, though, the movie is as unsatisfying as the snippets of covers of classic rock songs. More than 30 years later, knowing how it all turned out, it is difficult to remember how truly revolutionary Hoffman’s ideas were, and this movie never really tries.
Parents should know that this movie may be very confusing for anyone who does not remember the 1960’s, and teens who want to see it may need some background. The movie has strong language, fairly mild sexual references and situations (including adultery), permissive drug use, and illegal activity by both protesters and the government.
Families who see this movie will want to talk about what their older members were doing during this period and how they felt about Hoffman’s actvities. The movie’s official website has commentary by Stew Albert, one of Hoffman’s closest associates. Families who enjoy this movie may enjoy “Flashback,” a fictional account of a federal agent with an unexpected secret who captures a former hippie or “Medium Cool,” a fictional story that takes place at the 1968 Democratic convention that features footage from the protests.