Anyone under the age of 45 probably knows only a vague outline of the saga of Patricia Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was an heiress. She got kidnapped. She switched sides and joined her kidnappers for a bank heist. She got caught. She got pardoned.
That's all true, but it only scratches the surface of a wild 18-month drama that played out night after night on the news and provided enough fascinating characters and twists to keep the nation enthralled like no reality TV show ever could. Documentarian Robert Stone's Guerrilla: The Taking Of Patty Hearst takes us back to that tumultuous time and reminds us not only of the deep societal divisions (Black Power, Watergate, Vietnam) that inspired the nine-member SLA to rise up but also of the role the newly nimble electronic media played in keeping the Patty party going strong. It's fascinating stuff from start to finish.
Stone takes a sociological approach, combining old news footage with recent interviews of SLA members and journalists who look back on the events that unfolded with a mix of anger, disbelief, and bemusement. Berkeley circa 1972 was a hotbed of post-Kent State dissent, where protesters rallied against the "fascist corporate military dictatorship" and the "bourgeois insects" feeding off the corpses of the innocent victims they had killed in Vietnam and Latin America. You get the idea.
After assassinating the superintendent of the Oakland school system and bragging about it to the media, the SLA was emboldened enough to go through with a plot to grab Patty Hearst in early 1974 and force her corporate/fascist media baron father to bend to their will, which he did, in spades, in front of omnivorous TV journalists who soon found themselves acting as the conduit between the SLA and the Hearst camp. The disastrous food giveaway Hearst agreed to was just the start. Stone has all the footage, and he presents it in an exciting chronology that just gets weirder and weirder, especially when Patty proclaims her loyalty to the SLA and participates in a bank robbery. "I am Tania," Patty says, "and I choose to stay and fight."
From there, it's a mad rush to the film's most compelling moments: the final big shootout between five members of the SLA and countless Los Angeles cops who had them cornered. As Stone's interviewees point out, this was one of the very first news events that was broadcast live nationwide, setting a precedent for the made-for-TV news splashes with which we're so painfully familiar today. The footage, some of it never seen before, is a rush. You can easily see that neither the cops nor the reporters were capable of dealing with the situation they found themselves in.
The surviving SLA members Stone interviews describe how easy it was to get sucked into the counterculture and how logical it all seemed at the time to believe that a revolution was needed to correct all of America's ills. Interestingly, two years after the interviews were recorded, one of the men was convicted of murder in a second SLA bank robbery that took place in 1975 and is now in jail. We see his courtroom apology to members of the victim's family.
Hearst (who has since become a regular actress in John Waters' movies) is not interviewed, but it doesn't really matter. Her version of events and her justifications for her actions (i.e. brainwashing) are old news. In fact, Stone seems to regard her as slightly absurd, inserting a clip of modern-day Patty appearing on a British talk show. What you'll notice most are her ridiculously high heels.
However crazy the world seems today, Stone shows us it was even crazier back in the day, when kids with grand plans bombed Bay Area corporate headquarters almost nightly, denounced their own parents, and embraced the murdering SLA and Patty as folk heroes. It's a strange trip to go back and revisit those troubled times.
Note: Stone's 1987 documentary Radio Bikini uses lots of creepy declassified military footage to show the early years of nuclear weapons testing. He blends in interviews with Navy veterans who were there at the time and who suffered serious health problems as a result. Well worth a look.
The new DVD includes commentary by Stone, audio of the Patty Hearst tapes, footage of the Hibernia Bank robbery, and deleted scenes.
Aka Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
But where can we get that hat?