The Narco News Bulletin
Name of Our Country is América"
Hoffman Movie: Soon to be a Minor Motion Picture
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
Special to The
Narco News Bulletin
August 14, 2000
By Al Giordano
A new film by Lions Gate Productions, "Steal This Movie,"
premiering on August 15 in Los Angeles, is under fierce attack,
even on its own web site, for fictionalizing the history of American
revolutionary Abbie Hoffman.
Hoffman, who died in 1989
at the age of 52, came to prominence in the 1960s as a colorful
and humorous activist against the Vietnam war, for civil rights,
and "for a better means of exchange than money."
Someone ought to remind
the Hollywood film producers of the latter plank, and of Abbie's
legendary sense of humor, which is missing, like Abbie, from
the screenplay. The film fails on many levels but especially
in its nostalgic and apologetic stance on the youth rebellion
of the '60s. "Steal This Movie" is the last, worst,
example of a "capitalizing on the sixties" trend that
was the marketing sensation
of the 1980s.
The Hollywood Reporter,
one of the few movie zines to pay this confused film any mind
at all, described "Steal This Movie" as "a clumsy
schizoid in its approach
and a disappointingly
square attempt to tell the story of radical Abbie Hoffman."
A pamphlet distributed
by the former fugitive Abbie's friends, outside of one preview
screening, blasted: "Abbie is missing again!"
Movie-goers won't know
it from the film, but Abbie Hoffman's most enduring legacy came
after the '60s decade. Abbie was one of the first and sharpest
critics of the US war on drugs. He authored "Steal This
Urine Test" (1987, Viking-Penguin), still a classic of drug
Abbie was one hell of
a writer, too. He authored "Fuck the System" (1967),
"Revolution for the Hell of It" (1968), "Woodstock
Nation" (1969), "Steal This Book" (1971) and "Square
Dancing in the Ice Age" (1982).
a Radical": Abbie on the cover of People mag after his 1989
Here is the Narco News angle:
Hoffman spoke fluent Spanish as a result of his fugitive journey
in Mexico that began in 1974. He had been busted for drugs, so
he went underground. As an anti-prohibition author and activist
and passionate Mexiphile, Hoffman planted the seeds that today
grow in the form of The Narco News Bulletin and so many
other current activist projects by the next generations:
Hoffman took his passion
for Latin American social movements to Nicaragua in the 1980s.
In 1986, he defeated the
US Central Intelligence agency in court in the "CIA on Trial"
case in Northampton, Massachusetts, with a score of student co-defendants
including presidential daughter Amy Carter.
The film, by producer-director
Robert Greenwald, has been promoted by three former Hoffman associates
-- attorney Gerald Lefcourt, ex-yippie Stew Albert and Hoffman's
late second wife, Anita, who died in late 1999 -- all of whom
served as advisors to the film. And they are pretty much isolated
in their self-serving praise for a film that elevates their roles
in history as it diminishes Abbie's.
The movie rewards its
handful of ex-radical defenders by distorting the facts: It exaggerates
the role of Lefcourt, now a high-class New York lawyer (by contrast,
authentic radical Hoffman attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard
Weinglass do not exist in the film's fictional portrayal of historic
Photo: Abbie with
radical attorney Bill Kunstler and Dave Dellinger outside 1969
Chicago conspiracy trial
After Abbie's 1989 death I wrote
his obituary in the Valley Advocate:
There, I had praised Lefcourt for
never having sent Hoffman a legal bill. Perhaps I was premature
in that praise. The bill has now come due in the form of an untrue
movie that offers exaggerated publicity to one lawyer while ignoring
the historical contributions of the more committed radical attorneys
who labored by Abbie's side. Just as Abbie never sold out, Kunstler
(who died in 1995) and Weinglass (still fighting the good fight),
they never left the full-time practice of radical law for more
lucrative legal pursuits.
Am I being unfair to Lefcourt?
This is what the movie's own web site says about the attorney's
involvement in creating the film:
provided a treasure trove of information and recollections, and
became a key member of the creative team in developing the script."
Thus it's clear that Lefcourt
was "a key member" in the willful fictionalization
of Hoffman's life.
The Anita role in the
film is saddest of all, and the worst aspect of this production
was Greenwald's manipulation of the second of Hoffman's three
wives in her dying months. This is especially sad because Anita,
for most of her life, never was the helpless victim of anyone.
I say this in respect for her. Anita knew exactly what she was
doing with this film. And she did wrong by Abbie's legacy, and
by her own.
The movie portrays Anita,
against all historical record, as the continuing love story in
Hoffman's life, even after their separation in 1974. This fiction
by itself would not be so harmful to Hoffman's radical legacy
except for what Greenwald did with it: To exalt his source-consultant,
Greenwald's movie mutated into a veiled attack upon Hoffman's
long term running-mate Johanna Lawrenson.
Greenwald used his film
to punish Lawrenson because she had declined to cooperate with
the film: it portrays Lawrenson, a widely respected radical New
York intellectual and activist, instead as a shallow model that,
in the movie, keeps trying to get Abbie to give up the fight.
("Abbie always did want a blonde," laments the Anita
character in the film; but Lawrenson is neither blonde nor shallow).
The historic record shows the opposite: Lawrenson and Hoffman
were an activist team unprecedented in modern history. Hollywood
is a perverse place but it doesn't get any sicker than attacking
widows with malicious portrayals as punishment for not cooperating
with a movie.
The film is scheduled
for release in Los Angeles on August 15th, and has drawn wide
grassroots opposition from Abbie allies including on the movie's
own web site.
The movie producers have
countered the grassroots opposition by planting public-relations
Astroturf: they are offering the movie for benefit screenings
to Planned Parenthood and any other organization that is willing
to take the money and hush up about the film's severe problems,
thus giving the movie an activist gloss that does not shine in
its execution on the screen.
Vanity Films to Revenge Movies
The phenomenon of "vanity films"
is nothing new to Hollywood; the motion picture industry has
long rewarded real-life characters in historic events for being
sources and promoters of movies about those times. Hollywood
informants are rewarded with heroic portrayals often way beyond
their factual behavior in the real life events that are portrayed.
"Steal This Movie,"
however, has taken filmmaking to a new level of industry sleaze
in its attempts to punish people who did not cooperate. Hollywood
as culture cop: cooperate and you get off easy. If you don't
inform, the screen throws the popcorn at you.
In recent weeks, the film's
own web site has seen a raging controversy on its public message
board. Some of the messages on the web site -- a message board
purportedly in tribute to the Free Speech hero Hoffman -- were
censored, according to a message posted by Steal This Movie's
own web-master. The movie's hypocrisy abounds from the big screen
to the little one.
In recent months, hundreds
of people, including many who knew the late Hoffman, have seen
sneak previews of the movie. The buzz is almost entirely negative.
Viewers have taken the
film to task for "apologizing for the '60, something Abbie
never did" (the Anita character played by Jeaneane Garafolo
consistently makes those apologies in the movie) and for placing
Anita at the 1986 CIA-on-Trial events in Massachusetts, although
Anita was not there. Hoffman was there together with Lawrenson,
as seen in this photo with Abbie on the courthouse steps:
Photo: Abbie and
Johanna at the Hampshire County Courthouse, Northampton, Massachusetts
The movie's cyber-message board
reveals a very interesting catfight between movie consultant
Stew Albert and anonymous critics (they posted their critiques
of Stew, at best a supporting cast member in the 1960s yippies
movement, by using the names of "Abbie," "Kunstler"
and radical folksinger "Phil Ochs" among other late
figures from Hoffman's life).
As one critic described
the "surreal" nature of this cyber-argument, "Stew
was shadow-boxing with his ghosts."
In place of responding
to the critiques, a stream of personal insults - "schmuck!
Putz! Dumbass!" - came from the consultant toward the movie's
anonymous critics. It was not Stew Albert's highest yippie moment.
Meanwhile, young people who admire Hoffman are asking on the
same web site, "Who is this Stew Albert anyway?"
The movie's web page also offers
a chronology of Abbie's life that mentions one of my own collaborations
with Abbie, this time in Pennsylvania:
Abbie and Al Giordano come up with the idea of "Valley Forge
II: Dump the Pump" as a method of garnering patriotic resistance
to the proposed pumping station. He will spend most of his time
helping Del-AWARE people in their fight."
In fact, that moment took
place in January 1983, not in '82 as the official web site says,
but if all the film's mistakes were so minor I would not be writing
Full disclosure: I know
all the Hoffmans, most of them as friends, although I was critical
of the book by Abbie's brother Jack ("Run, Run, Run,"
1994) in a Boston Phoenix review, in part, because Jack's
book engaged in a similar kind of publicity-vendetta against
all of Abbie's wives (Anita, in fact, thanked me for writing
that harsh review, and then went on to repeat Jack's mistakes
with this movie).
When Abbie's daughter
Ilya was married in 1995, she had me represent her father at
the wedding, to provide and read a text by Abbie. It ended: "Young
people, don't give up hope. The future is yours."
I liked Anita as a person,
but she did not make good decisions regarding her involvement
with this film, and she did some harm to history in the process,
including to her own.
In the Spring of 1996,
Anita Hoffman and I were in regular contact. Anita, saying she
wanted to show her appreciation for some help I had given her
and others on an urgent matter. Anita offered me work as a consultant
on this film. Anita even suggested that Hollywood would pay me
for having known Abbie so well: Hoffman had named me his authorized
biographer nine months before his death.
Anita said that she was
a paid consultant to the film, and wanted me to join her in that
venture. That struck me as kind of strange.
I've always cooperated
with Hoffman's other biographers, but never for money: I hosted
three of them in my home and offered hours of direct testimony
on my travels with Abbie to his published biographers; Marty
Jezer ("American Rebel" Rutgers University Press),
Jonah Raskin ("For the Hell of It" U. of California
Press) and Larry Ratso Sloman ("Steal This Dream" Random
The Jezer and Sloman books
extensively recount my travels with Abbie and did so accurately.
The Raskin book devoted only about ten pages to Abbie's final
(and best) decade as a radical, but at least was reasonably faithful
to the historic record in what it did report in that chapter.
Abbie, when he recruited
me as his biographer in 1988, knew he was not long for this world.
Abbie was very proud of the facts about his life. And he knew
that the vultures would circle when he checked out.
I never asked for nor
took a cent from any of my colleagues in Hoffman biography. More
important, to me, was working to tell the truth about Abbie,
who had invested so much in me and in others as young political
organizers in the '80s.
Jezer sold the movie rights
to his book to Greenwald (who, in movie-speak, writes that he
"optioned" the Jezer book), but the movie doesn't resemble
the facts in Jezer's book. Marty Jezer never placed Anita as
a major player after 1974 in Abbie's story, and not at all near
the CIA trial. So what gives with the movie? And I wonder what
Marty feels about the movie taking so many liberties with his
book and signing his name to an invented story line that he never
So it took me by surprise
on that day in 1996 when an assistant to producer Robert Greenwald
then called me by telephone -- Anita had given them my number
-- seeking to sign me up and pay me to do what I've always done
gratis. Two things that the assistant said bothered me.
I was so turned off that I told the Greenwald assistant, immediately,
that in spite of the movie's generous offers I would not cooperate.
The first alarm on my
bullshit detector went off when I asked the producer what other
kinds of films this Greenwald person had made. She said that
his most recent prior film was "about a cop and an informant
and its moral was that informants are people too." Knowing
what Abbie felt on the matter of snitches -- he'd been betrayed
many times and paid a high price for it legally and economically
-- it didn't sound like these people grasped at all who Abbie
was nor did they understand the causes that he championed.
The second reason I declined
the Greenwald company offer to participate was what I perceived
then -- and has been proven now by their bad screenplay -- as
a vengeful attitude by the Greenwald group toward Johanna Lawrenson
because she had declined to participate in the movie.
"Well, if Johanna
won't talk to us," Greenwald's assistant told me in our
phone conversation, "we'll just eliminate the years that
Abbie spent underground from the movie. We don't need the facts
of the underground story to make this movie!" They carried
out that threat in the final product.
It is no secret that when
I traveled with Abbie in Nicaragua, in the Thousand Islands,
in Canada, in New York City, and in other places, more often
than not we were with Johanna and with other young activists
like myself. We always worked as a team. And Johanna was the
guiding force who kept all of us, the organizers, not just Abbie,
but also the young folks, organized and working together as a
team. Abbie and Johanna were a great American love story; a love
that included even the people of all América.
Johanna, like Abbie, with
a long radical personal history of her own (before meeting Abbie
she sued the FBI in a landmark espionage case and won), was and
remains a friend to a generation of young activists; most of
us are still active today because of the personal time that Abbie
and Johanna put into us.
In stark contrast to people
like Stew Albert and Gerry Lefcourt, we haven't abandoned the
fight at middle age or sold our souls for a peck of publicity.
We have the bigger prize - revolution - as our motive.
Just last week, the Mexican
national weekly, La Crisis, which has published various
Narco News stories in Spanish, reported a story about
the demonstrations planned outside the 2000 Democratic National
Convention in Los Angeles this month.
In that article, Lisa
Fithan, who was with Abbie, Johanna and I in Nicaragua in 1984-85,
was quoted as an organizer of the Direct Action organization
that is planning the convention demo in 2000. From Los Angeles
to Mexico, the movement marches on.
The streets may not be
coming to the movie theaters this summer but the theater that
Abbie pioneered is still in the streets.
The Autobiography of Abbie
Hoffman (1980) was written during the underground era that the
movie largely ignores. The publishers titled it "Soon to
be a Major Motion Picture." Abbie hated that industry-imposed
The Abbie Hoffman story
may well be a major motion picture someday, but it will not be
anytime soon, and certainly not this summer. Abbie will be in
the streets in August 2000, not at the cine-plex.
Al Giordano, publisher
Narco News Bulletin,
reports on the drug war from Latin America. He receives e-mail
Theater in a Crowded Fire