Well, it was a good idea. Of the sensational scandals that have captured America's attention over the last half-century, the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst is surely among the most cinematic: A photogenic heiress is wrenched from the arms of her loving fiance and subjected to 19 months among a cryptically named terrorist group supposedly dedicated to the liberation of the poor. During her captivity, in a series of statements released to the press, Hearst reveals an ever-increasing sympathy with her captors and their mission until, one day, she is caught on surveillance film as she helps rob a bank, arms cradling an automatic rifle and smile flashing across her face. "I am a soldier in the people's army," she says on tape.
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst used to be known by another name. Initially, it was titled Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army, and that is the more accurate title. The documentary, directed by Robert Stone, details the foundation, short life, and messy death of the SLA, the group that kidnapped Hearst, made outrageous demands of her wealthy father, and cut a violent swath through the San Francisco Bay Area in 1974 and 1975. But the SLA is not that interesting. Essentially a collection of angry students drunk on power, they burned through their brief and notorious infamy quickly and predictably. Hearst, on the other hand, remains intriguing and mysterious, even after writing two books and appearing on talk shows. Her involvement in the SLA and subsequent arrest and trial continue to prompt the question: What the hell happened to her? Was she a classic victim of the Stockholm syndrome, in which prisoners come to identify with their captors, or did she merely use that as an excuse to get out of prison?
Title change notwithstanding, Guerrilla tries not to be about Hearst. Nevertheless, she rises from the telling at every turn, demanding attention, and one wishes that Stone had heeded her call. Instead, he focuses on the testimony of two former members of the SLA, Russ Little and Michael Bortin. (It seems probable that Stone would have interviewed other former members, had any been willing to talk.) Little was a founder, but he was imprisoned before the kidnappings took place; what he offers are the disgruntled and incredulous musings of a man who had to listen to the entire escapade on a radio, first wishing he had taken part and later ruing its stupidity. Bortin's role was more immediate. While not initially involved, he hopped on board the SLA disaster train when the fugitive members fled to Berkeley, after the majority of the group were killed in a Waco-style shootout and firebombing. Bortin took the SLA into his home and his heart and, though he doesn't admit it in the film, participated in at least one of their violent bank robberies.
Yes, that's right. He doesn't admit it in the film. Stone conducted the interviews for Guerrilla in 2001; it wasn't until 2003 that Bortin, along with three other former SLA members, pleaded guilty to the murder of Myrna Opsahl, a woman who died during the robbery at Carmichael Crocker National Bank. (She was there to deposit funds for her church.) The film all but ends on this detail, which is major: If Bortin didn't tell the truth about the Crocker robbery in his interview, what else did he lie about? What's his testimony worth? Stone's first source missed most of the events; his second lies. His third is a journalist, Timothy Finley, of the San Francisco Chronicle. Finley is engaging, but he doesn't have anything new to add. So what does this film offer?
Not much. Essentially, it's a retelling of the events, using old television footage and the reel-to-reel tapes on which the SLA, and Patty Hearst, issued their statements. (An unfortunate percentage of the film is spent viewing these reels, watching the machines spin and register the sounds of the voices. Sure, it's important that we hear these tapes, but must we also watch them play?) From all appearances, there is no news -- or rather, much of the film is nothing but the news, the mainstream network coverage of the events as they happened. Guerrilla takes a moment to question this coverage, and to wonder at the wisdom of both the media stakeout at the Hearst mansion and the live broadcast of the L.A. shootout, but it doesn't say much about either.
Guerrilla also hints at wanting to say something about terrorism. It's a good time in our culture for that, certainly, and it's eerie to witness the press' reporting on an entire series of violent acts, one by one, as the SLA carries them out. But this thread, too, trails off. In the end, it's Hearst we want to know about, and it's Hearst who resists. Stone teases us with a snippet from a talk-show appearance, cutting her off after she says only one thing, but the joke's on him. His movie needs Hearst, and it doesn't get her.
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