The first scene has Abbie, played by Vincent D'Onofrio, who was one of film's producers, on the lam in 1977, contacting journalist David Glenn (Alan Van Sprang) to give him an exclusive story about the miseries of being underground and about COINTELPRO, the secret government program that has ruined his life.
Glenn is basically little more than an expository foil, as Abbie relates to him historical details the journalist would surely already know--explaining, for instance, what the civil rights movement was. The dialogue is a flat history lesson; and, while it's understandable that director Robert Greenwald would want to set the scene for those with memories or lifespans too short to recall, one wishes he could have done it with a little more finesse.
For most of the film, Glenn is the rough equivalent of Citizen Kane's Mr. Thompson, interviewing various associates as a device to introduce a series of flashbacks. But Greenwald can't seem to express the passage of time coherently: Early on, the voiceover dates a scene of Abbie as a short-haired campus activist from 1967--it should have been earlier--then shows him at full counterculture bloom in a scene that couldn't have been set more than three months later. A later elision, in which Abbie's son suddenly goes from 9 to 19, is even more jarring.
Trimming important details from the story for the sake of simplicity (Abbie's first marriage and the resulting two children, for instance), the film intermingles Abbie's romance with second wife Anita (Janeane Garofalo) with the escalating confrontations between the government and the very loose coalition of black activists, peaceniks, freaks, and socialists of various stripes that came together as a response to the Vietnam War. One doesn't expect a film like this to cover everything, but, to judge by Steal This Movie!, the gay and women's movements were happening in some other country altogether.
The "plot" exposition reaches a peak with the Chicago 8--then 7, 9, or 10 (depending on what day it was)--trial, which made Abbie, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, and Tom Hayden heroes/villains to the nation. The film then shows Abbie as stuck in the curious situation of being a celebrity with no money and no way to exploit his fame--a man whom everyone erroneously assumes is rich because, well, he's famous. This is complicated by a COINTELPRO disinformation campaign that portrays him as a bourgeois hypocrite, living the high life.
A drug bust forces Abbie underground, where he establishes a second identity as Barry Freed, eventually taking up with Johanna Lawrenson (Jeanne Tripplehorn). But the necessity of maintaining a false identity and the pain of being unable to have real contact with Anita and their son, America, begin to break down his emotional integration. He is diagnosed as bipolar. Eventually he has no choice but to reemerge. The film then races through the next six years of Abbie's life, ending three years before his death in 1989, reportedly by suicide.
Among the people who cooperated with Greenwald on this project were Abbie's longtime lawyer Gerry Lefcourt, listed as associate producer, and his friends Stew and Judy Albert: All three have stated that they are generally satisfied with the film. As someone who wasn't all that far from these scenes at the time, however, I have to say that the film feels hugely inauthentic. Stew Albert (Donal Logue) has described Abbie's accent as a mixture of Worcester, Massachusetts, where Abbie grew up, and the street tough talk of New York City. But, at odd moments, D'Onofrio's rendition of this accent suggests that the actor thinks Worcester is somewhere in North Carolina.
In a biopic, the absolute replication of reality is neither desirable nor possible. It's no problem that D'Onofrio is more than half a foot taller than Abbie or that Garofalo looks nothing like Anita. Nor is it problematic that Hayden is played by an actor vastly more handsome than himself (his real-life son, Troy Garity, who has Fonda genes as well) or Lefcourt by an actor less handsome than himself (Kevin Pollak). So it's not the mere inaccuracy of the accent that's the problem. It's that, in his attempt to capture Abbie, D'Onofrio ends up with an accent that not only doesn't sound like the way Abbie spoke, but in fact doesn't sound like the way anybody ever spoke. It's what you'd expect in a sci-fi comedy from a slightly dim alien trying to pass as an Earthling. (When he utters the word perfect at one point, it comes out as "puff-ict.") It is, to put it mildly, distracting.
While the script is no great shakes, most of the film's other fatal problems are in the directing. Abbie doesn't come across as smart and funny enough; Jerry Rubin doesn't come across as stupid enough. The black-and-white footage representing the evil government machinations of the period is laughably heavy-handed. And the exposition is alternately flat-footed and confusing. Particularly comical is the scene in which a psychiatrist instructs Abbie about manic depression and lithium, ignoring the fact that, before he became a full-time activist, our hero was both a psychologist and a pharmaceutical salesman.
It may be impossible for any historically based film to satisfy those who were present for the actual events. And Greenwald's depiction of the '60s is far from the worst depiction of the era (for that, one would have to look at the relevant parts of Forrest Gump), but it still comes across as artificial.