When we turn on the TV these days there's so much to be ashamed of, whether it's the so-called Reality TV we apparently crave or the so-called Fair and Balanced cable news networks forced to fill air time 24 hours a day. Our latest war continues to fade into convenient abstraction, yet millions of Americans not only know intimate details about Scott and Lacy Petersen, they have formed strong opinions of them. And no news in the world is safe from a breaking story that involves Paris Hilton and a camera.
Now try to imagine a pop culture Perfect Storm: a confluence of people and events in an unfolding story so shocking and yet so emblematic of the times that the media would nearly short-circuit itself. Such was the story of the Symbionese Liberation Army and its kidnapping of Patty Hearst in the mid-1970s, a real life folktale that faded considerably over the last 30 years but reemerges more surreal than ever in Robert Stone’s new documentary Guerrilla: the Taking of Patty Hearst.
While the Sixties have been dissected to death, not many people have bothered with the year 1974. With the U.S. out of Vietnam and Richard Nixon forced out of office the Sixties were officially over and the anti-establishment movement could pat itself on the back and head for the disco. But the radical political left believed that very little had actually changed and they took the battle elsewhere. The activists came from everywhere, but congregated mostly in Berkeley, California. They started with the rights of black prisoners and the working class, and as Stone illustrates by sprinkling in film clips of Errol Flynn, they identified with Robin Hood and other childhood heroes who fought against the government. Following the ill-advised and never fully explained political assassination of black school superintendent Marcus Foster, some of the activists went to jail while others plunged deeper into dark megalomaniac fantasy to become the Symbionese Liberation Army and declare war on the United States.
The murky story came into focus in February 1974, when Patty Hearst, the 19 year old heir to grandfather William Randolph Hearst's media empire was kidnapped in Berkeley by the SLA. In a remarkable evolution of a news story, which Stone pieces together from archival footage, Hearst pleads on audio tape with her parents to meet her captors demands. More remarkably, the Hearsts give in, donating millions of dollars worth of food to the Bay Area poor. More remarkable still the spoiled heiress becomes America's most famous terrorist. Patty Hearst declares herself Tania, joins the war against her parents and all other capitalist pigs, shoulders a machine gun during a bank robbery, takes a fellow SLA member named Cujo as her lover, and watches him and five other SLA comrades die in a two hour televised shootout with 500 officers from the Los Angeles Police Department. Later Patty Hearst will be captured, tried, imprisoned, pardoned and rehabilitated as a camp celebrity.
So there you have it. Race. Class. Politics. Sex. Violence. Legitimate drama. And melodrama. What does it all mean? Director Stone doesn't aim the story to any conclusion, but simply lets you taste the madness. Some of his interviewees, including former SLA member Russ Little - who has never before spoken on the subject - offer perspectives. But at the end of the day it's the story itself. One unbelievable true story. Guerrilla: the Taking of Patty Hearst will blow away anything on the tube today.
© 2005 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 11/24/04
Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst
U.S. - 2004