Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I guess the Michael Jackson debacle last year made the original title for this absorbing documentary (Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army) commercially inappropriate. The replacement is adequate, although nothing could have topped a simple "Urban Guerrilla," the vocation that Patty Hearst dictated to her booking officer when she was finally captured.
Robert Stone's 2004 docu is a good example of a newish trend in special subject documentaries. Instead of purporting to show the absolute truth about his essentially 'unknowable' subject, Stone simply lays out the known facts about the self-styled revolutionaries known as the Symbionese Liberation Army and their bizarre kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst. A few weeks after her disappearance, she surfaced on audio tape calling herself by the name "Tania" and then joined her kidnappers in robbing a bank. Every previous account of this crazy piece of 1970s history has a definite axe to grind or thesis agenda to pursue. Stone's show presents newsfilm, audio excerpts and videos of court appearances without immediate interpretation. Thus we're able to assess all the facts and come to our own conclusions if we're so inclined.
The lack of an editorial stance has attracted some criticism as well as the observation that Patty Hearst is not allowed to present her side of the story. Stone actually includes enough material to suggest that looking for the truth in that avenue isn't going to be very rewarding. Hearst presented a new face to the public every few weeks, from a series of almost-certainly coerced political communiqués on audio tape, to her later smirking defiance when captured and her gracious "I'm just a good-girl victim" pose when her lengthy sentence was commuted by President Carter. If she had been present during one of the SLA's murders, getting her off the hook would have been a much tougher problem. Everybody else played the crazy political drama for their own ends, including the two ex-SLA members Michael Bortin and Russ Little, who are interviewed. And finally, there's the biggest video mystery of the 1970s - the two-minute bank security camera tape that shows Hearst participating in the robbery, machine gun in hand. Despite her later protests, she doesn't look one bit coerced or intimidated. She looks like she's getting off on playing Revolutionary Miss,1974.
The fact that Patty Hearst never simply walked away from the SLA after she became more of a member and less of a prisoner, adds fuel to the cumulative doubt that Stone's docu slowly builds. The Hearsts, the media and even "Mr. Law 'n Order" Ronald Reagan (seen in a news conference making a shamefully duplicitous offer to the SLA) maintain a distinction between 'good conservative kids' and the radical element that needed to be torn from our streets and universities. Patty Hearst seemed to be living proof that even the children of the rich were capable of taking up arms against the system.
That's the romantic view of the Symbionese Liberation Army, and Robert Stone's docu refutes it even as it shows clips of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood to represent the SLA's warped self-image. The testimony and research reveals them to be criminals, drifters and intellectual malcontents unrelated to the Berkeley anti-war protests. Unlike The Weather Underground they weren't a splinter group from legit campus activists, but ambitious radicals pursuing an elaborate political fantasy. Their communiqués are worded to shock straight society and deliver a defiant challenge to the 'facist' system they despised.
The SLA's policies were never very clear. They extorted a food giveaway program from the Hearst family, a stunt that did little but show that their main desire was to humiliate Patty's parents. They robbed banks to support their underground existence. All the king's men couldn't round up a dozen lousy revolutionaries. The police and F.B.I. are organized to combat crimes with traceable motives (money) and telltale evidence (money), and ended up taking the most heat from outraged politicos (Reagan again).
A prominent lawyer asks why the SLA and their 'leader' Sinque didn't just give up when surrounded White Heat-style by an army of cops in south-central L.A.. They could have had their day in court and put their philosophy, if any, into the public record. Guerrilla's coverage of the shoot-out suggests that the SLA wasn't really given a chance to surrender. I remember watching the cop cars screaming down Beverly Blvd. that day, miles away from the shootout scene. The holdouts were ordered to give up, and the onslaught began after a break of only a couple of minutes. The bodies were found in the crawlspace under the house. No matter how you look at it (it's very possible that the trigger-happy SLA fired first), the assumption by almost everyone was that the L.A.P.D.'s mission was just to take the SLA out, big-time. They claimed later that they didn't know if Patty Hearst was in the house at the time, a point contested by interviewees.
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst doesn't try to get into the heads of the SLA members and only lightly sketches their individual personalities. It's really about the cultural circus that fed into the scandalous episode, with the press camped out at the Hearst home and the country held hostage by the SLA gang. Even law enforcement eventually considered the kidnapee armed and dangerous. What else could they do? Instead of conjecture, the docu offers the facts, a highly commendable stance.
The film is excellently edited by Don Kleszy. Some rock music is heard but there are no attempts to dress up the film with contemporary tunes. One hi-contrast montage effectively backs up Patty Hearst's post-capture account of the nightmarish ordeal as a prisoner of the SLA. But we can't help but hear the obviously earnest voice on the group's audio tapes and think differently about her experience.
Docurama's disc of Robert Stone's Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst is a good-quality flat letterboxed transfer of a film with a great deal of content from old videotape and 16mm newsfilm. The audio is excellent, as is the music by Gary Lionelli.
Robert Stone presents a fine commentary that illuminates his decsion process on how to tell the story in the most useful way. There is also a gallery of prime resources - The Patty Hearst audio tapes, the famous Hibernia Bank footage, and deleted material from the Sacramento courthouse twenty five years later when some former SLA members were arraigned for a murder committed during a robbery. Formatting is fine, although the packaging misleadingly states that the video is 16:9 Widescreen when it is not.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst rates:
Video: Very good
Supplements: audio excerpts, bank robbery footage, courthouse footage, trailer, photo gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 27, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson