(Note: “Life and Art” is an occasional column that compares fiction, in various media, with the real-life facts on which it is ostensibly based.)
Abbie Hoffman always wanted a movie made out of his life. Before becoming a political activist, he briefly ran an art-house cinema in his hometown of Worcester, Mass. Once famous, he hung out with actors and directors in Hollywood, and he titled his 1980 autobiography Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture (Universal optioned and then dropped the book). Now, 11 years after Hoffman’s suicide at the age of 52, Steal This Movie! (a reference to Hoffman’s famous manual on how to rip off the system, Steal This Book) has arrived.
Hoffman’s longtime lawyer Gerald Lefcourt (played by Kevin Pollak in the movie) served as associate producer, and Hoffman’s ex-wife Anita consulted on the script and visited the set. (She died of breast cancer in 1998.) Not surprisingly, the authorized-by-proxy biopic celebrates Hoffman as an anti-war protest leader who promoted countercultural values and was harassed by the U.S. government. But not until Hoffman goes underground following his 1974 arrest for cocaine dealing does Steal This Movie! depart seriously from the facts. In a wholly fictional subplot, the movie teams the fugitive Hoffman with an investigative reporter who helps him expose the FBI’s ongoing covert war against the left.
The film begins with the investigative reporter visiting Hoffman (Vincent D’Onofrio) in the underground, and his questions set off a series of extended, true-to-life flashbacks: Hoffman disrupts the New York Stock Exchange in 1967 by throwing dollar bills to eager brokers on the floor; he attempts to “levitate” the Pentagon along with other anti-war protesters later that year; he leads the Yippies (the Youth International Party), the politicized group of hippies he co-founded, during their demonstration at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In the film, as in life, Hoffman and compatriots nominate a pig named Pigasus for president and also end up in a bloody, nationally televised fight with police over control of a city park. Steal This Movie! quotes heavily from the court transcripts of the subsequent Chicago Seven trial (1969-70), at which the ill-behaved, judge-defying defendants—Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, and others—were convicted for conspiring to cause a riot and were also sentenced for contempt of court. (The Chicago Seven trial was the Chicago Eight trial until the judge separated Black Panther Bobby Seale’s case from the others. Seale is in the celluloid courtroom, but this bit of history doesn’t make it into the film.) As Steal This Movie! notes, the convictions were ultimately overturned.
Other minor historical inaccuracies: The film depicts Hoffman scaling a wall during the Pentagon demonstration and getting clubbed by military police. Jonah Raskin, Yippie minister of education and author of For the Hell of It:The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, says in an interview that the assault never happened. The movie pretends that the Chicago Seven defendants were united when they weren’t. According to Raskin, Hoffman joked that it would be “cruel and unusual punishment to be in the same cell as Tom Hayden,” and Hayden “wanted the trial to be about the war in Vietnam, [while] Abbie wanted it to be about the cultural revolution.” The movie also ignores Hoffman’s role at 1969’s Woodstock, where he took the stage during a Who performance to make a political speech but was driven off by a knock to the head from Pete Townshend’s electric guitar. The Vietnam War fades from the movie’s view after the Chicago Seven trial, although it remained the country’s most volatile political issue even after the drawdown of U.S. troops began in 1969. Nor does the movie recount Hoffman’s attendance at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami. “Abbie and Jerry [Rubin] were greeted as heroes,” says his friend Jay Levin in Larry Sloman’s oral biography of Hoffman, Steal This Dream.
The film then charts Hoffman’s fall from radical favor, blaming it on government disinformation. Indeed, the government did plot against him, but Hoffman hadn’t been a hero to everyone on the left. Feminists and others were fed up with his macho, look-at-me agitprop antics. In the radical newspaper Rat (1970), Robin Morgan wrote: “Goodbye to the notion that good ol’ Abbie is any different from any other up and coming movie star … who ditches the first wife and kids. … Women are the real left.” (Before coming to New York, Hoffman was married and had two kids with his wife Sheila, whom he later divorced. A chapter of his autobiography is titled “Faulty Rubber, Failed Marriage.” The Sheila period isn’t in the movie.)
The film doesn’t gloss over Hoffman’s numerous romantic liaisons, as wife Anita (Janeane Garofalo) acknowledges his extramarital adventures in the film. But it does downplay his drug habit. At one point the movie Anita tells Jerry Rubin, “You know Abbie didn’t have a drug problem.” But a friend quoted in Steal This Dream remembers that “Abbie really loved coke, it was his drug of choice.”
Although Raskin says that Hoffman dealt cocaine for about two years before his 1974 arrest, Lefcourt alleges that Hoffman’s bust was the unfortunate result of a “lark”: Hoffman, perhaps with an eye toward a book, wanted to explore some outlaw activity before New York state’s new strict Rockefeller drug laws went into effect. In the film, Anita also says the drug deal was part of the research Hoffman was doing for a book and that the FBI “used drugs as an excuse to bust Abbie for his politics.”
In both the movie and the true story, Hoffman skipped bail after his arrest, though he remained in contact with Anita and their son, america. He was also diagnosed as manic-depressive and put on lithium. And he fell in love with Johanna Lawrenson (Jeanne Tripplehorn), settling with her in upstate New York, where, under his alias Barry Freed, he became a leader in the successful enviro campaign to save the St. Lawrence River from winter dredging.
The movie distorts the record by mostly presenting Hoffman’s life underground as one of isolation and deprivation, lived in cheap motels while working short-order-cook jobs. He did live that way. But he also lived in Mexico for a while, where he had a house with a swimming pool and horses; he and Johanna went to Europe, where they pretended to be food critics so they could eat at fancy restaurants; and he spent time in Los Angeles with people like Jack Nicholson and producer Bert Schneider. As a 1980 Washington Post article noted, “While underground, he would call the Associated Press and the local gossip columnists if he did not like a story. He had interviews in Playboy and New Times magazines. He breezed into New York to have a birthday party with friends at an expensive Chinese restaurant and to autograph his new book in a bookstore downtown.” Reporters had no trouble reaching him. The Post reported, “Local leftwing operators always had his underground area code and dial information. Fifteen minutes or two days later, Hoffman would get in touch.”
According to Steal This Movie!, Hoffman broke his five-year silence underground to single-handedly expose COINTEL, the FBI’s secret campaign to disrupt the American left, with the aid of investigative reporter David Glenn (Alan Van Sprang). As the cinematic Hoffman prepares to leave the underground and take his chances with the law, he spies a newsmagazine with “COINTEL” splashed across the cover and says, “Glenn came through after all. COINTEL is going to die.”
This scene, set in 1979 or thereabouts, is preposterous. David Glenn is a purely fictional creation, and Hoffman played no role in exposing COINTEL, which came to light in 1974 and was the subject of congressional hearings in 1975. Clearly, the FBI was still monitoring Hoffman and his friends while he was underground, though there is some debate as to how heavily. But by 1979, there was little to nothing to uncover about COINTEL. By adding a COINTEL “exposé” to Hoffman’s résumé, the movie gives counterfeit political purpose to his underground years.
After surrendering to authorities in 1980, Hoffman spent a few months in prison and a little less than a year in work-release. He remained politically active until his suicide—protesting U.S. involvement in Central America, speaking on college campuses, and campaigning for the environment. The movie doesn’t dwell on the ‘80s, but ends with Hoffman successfully defending himself in court after he and some Amherst students are arrested for protesting the CIA’s actions in Nicaragua. (The suicide is mentioned in a postscript.)
Steal This Movie!’s most egregious distortion is one of omission: It largely fails to capture Hoffman’s comic anarchism. In real life, he was always engaging in put-ons: He once made a speech saying he’d “fucked” Spiro Agnew’s daughter (a claim the FBI actually bothered investigating), and during the 1968 convention he threatened to spike Chicago’s drinking water with LSD. (Skeptical police were forced to guard the reservoirs.) While underground, Hoffman would send taunting letters to the FBI on stationery from various hotels. Hoffman also loved to tell the story of how, as a fugitive, he’d pretended to be a tourist and gone on a guided visit of the FBI headquarters. We’ll probably never know whether or not that story is true.