Guerrilla: The Taking Of Patty Hearst
Involuntary terrorist turned John Waters casting pet Patricia Hearst has learned not to take herself very seriously, but in the new documentary about her—featuring everyone but her—director Robert Stone does, and very much so.
For her once-stratospheric public profile as much as for her inscrutable motivations, Hearst has been one of the most grippingly cryptic figures in American pop life ever since she, heiress to the Hearst publishing fortune, was kidnapped in 1974 by an unlikely band of black radicals and white liberals calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army. Using both archival materials and talking-head interviews with those few SLA members who remain alive and unincarcerated, Stone succeeds in parsing smartly the remarkably bizarre details of Hearst’s 19-month-long captivity: the commando-style abduction from her Berkeley, Calif., home; the string of preposterous demands the SLA made for her return (e.g., feeding all poor Californians for a month); Hearst’s sudden conversion to the SLA’s agenda, which she announced by robbing a bank sporting a black beret and the new moniker ‘Tania’; her rescue-cum-capture in an apartment hideout; and the eventual commutation and pardon she received from presidents Carter and Clinton, respectively, owing to the belief that, no matter what she did while an abductee, she was always more the victim than the criminal.
Through it all, Stone is wise to look for the lesson in the SLA itself; too often painted by latter-day wags as a kind of hobnailed political cult, it seems here like a scale model of American radicalism in steep decline. But Guerrilla is nonetheless strangely righteous in its treatment of Hearst herself. When she was found by authorities, Hearst was emaciated, deranged, and had been repeatedly sexually victimized, but Stone would have you feel suspicious to learn that her story, in the end, did not quite add up.
Indeed, Guerrilla is almost gleeful in skewering the alibi Hearst gave when she went on trial (basically, that she suffered from more than a year and a half of moral amnesia); and the director spares no vigor in juxtaposing the revolutionary rhetoric Hearst was forced to utter as a captive with the diffident self-promotion she took part in years later, like appearing on a British talk show to discuss her exploits with an almost cheery calm. Hearst remains the peak-cheekboned sphinx that she always was, it’s true, but Stone seems to think that the inconsistencies of a woman who did whatever it took to survive are tantamount to, dare we even say it, a kind of flip-flopping.