MGM // 1988 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // June 15th, 2011
Her own story.
All but forgotten today, the Patty Hearst case was one of the most renowned stories of the 1970s. It was emblematic of the changes that rocked America in that era: crime, violence, celebrity, and the tattered remnants of the '60s social revolution. Filmmaker Paul Schrader (Affliction) has shown that he doesn't shy away from controversial and dark topics such as this one. While Patty Hearst isn't quite as vibrant and arresting as his best work, it is an intriguing film that tells this remarkable story without stooping to sensationalism or cheap melodrama.
In 1974, Patty Hearst (Natasha Richardson, The Parent Trap), the heiress to the multimillion dollar Hearst newspaper publishing fortune, is a student at Berkeley University in California. One night, when she answers the door to a woman who claims to be in trouble, she is instead kidnapped at gunpoint by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a ragtag cult of left-wing terrorists who intend to use her for publicity. When the Hearst family refuses to negotiate for her release, Patty becomes disillusioned and falls under the spell of the SLA's charismatic leader, Cinque (Ving Rhames, Pulp Fiction). As Cinque orders his minions, including Teko (William Forsythe, Gotti) and Yolanda (Frances Fisher, Titanic) to psychologically torture Patty, she eventually breaks down and agrees to join the SLA. She and the SLA then embark on a series of bloody robberies and shootouts that turn her from a sympathetic victim to a wanted criminal.
You might think you know what to expect from Patty Hearst. Paul Schrader is the firebrand filmmaker who has been responsible, either as screenwriter or director, for such films as Taxi Driver, Blue Collar, Mishima, and Raging Bull. You might therefore imagine Patty Hearst as a visceral assault that evokes the violence and controversy of the time. You would be wrong. Patty Hearst is not a film about the times or about the media frenzy that surrounded the case. It's not even really a film about the bloody violence (although that is shown) that the SLA perpetrated in the name of "revolution."
What Patty Hearst is about is Patty herself. That sounds prosaic but it really isn't. What, exactly, did Patty endure in captivity? What was her life like? What caused her to eventually abandon her previous identity and assume the new one of revolutionary? Patty's "motivations" are not easy to read in the conventional movie sense. We see her desperation, her disillusionment, and her eagerness to join the SLA, but there's no moment where we see Patty decide to either convert or to act as if she's converted. It's more accurate to say that Patty loses her old identity because of her ordeal but never really gains a new one. Instead, she alternates between her old one, a new one as a revolutionary (christened "Tania"), and one that isn't either, depending on what will lead to her survival. This isn't a conscious choice; one of the things the film makes clear is that there isn't any precise, cast-iron way that a person will deal psychologically with the trauma that Patty endures. Her first lines in the film, in which Patty describes how she always had a strong sense of self, are therefore key pieces of dialogue. They demonstrate that far from physical danger or sensory deprivation, the worst part of her ordeal is that the kidnappers have robbed her of her identity and she spends the rest of the film desperately trying to recover it however she can. It's an insight that may challenge some viewers' perspective about what Hearst did and why, but it also shows that Patty Hearst is less interested in easy sensationalism and more in actually examining its characters.
It's also worth pointing out that the film may shock some viewers in just how it depicts the SLA. Patty Hearst is based on Hearst's autobiography and while some may dismiss the portrayal seen here as vengeful, it's still remarkably unforgiving. The SLA members come off as either hopeless dupes or self-involved gangsters. At no point will viewers ever see them making any remotely effective social protest whatsoever. Cinque's rhetoric sounds impressive, mainly because of his booming voice and spectacular charisma, but when you dissect his words you realize that they're really nothing more than a justification for thuggery. Teko and Yolanda are even more pathetic, unable to avoid using pseudo-revolutionary cant to explain everything, even their marital dissatisfaction. That's not even to mention the SLA's actual acts of "liberation," which Patty is shocked to learn consist mainly of holding up banks and small businesses and randomly shooting innocent bystanders to death. Given the ineptitude and hypocrisy rampant in the group, it's no surprise that their story ends as it does, but it may come as a surprise to viewers expecting the film to paint the SLA as noble warriors who died for their ideals. It's another sign of how the film refuses to conform to anyone's expectations, no matter what they may be.
What ultimately makes Patty Hearst so compelling, even more than the story it tells, is the acting. Rhames is given the showiest role and handles it with aplomb. Cinque remains a vacuous self-promoter whose leadership role is wholly unearned, but Rhames gives him more than enough magnetism to see how he could easily rise to the top in a group of rudderless easy marks like the SLA. Forsythe and Fisher provide the film's darkly funny moments as they squabble and take turns bullying Patty while simultaneously spouting left-wing babble even they can see has no relation to reality in any way. It's Richardson's performance, however, that's at the heart of the film, and she never hits a wrong note. The role of Patty Hearst would seem an excuse to indulge in weeping, crying, and mannered craziness, but instead, Richardson plays Patty as a smart and tough young woman who learns to bury her emotions so successfully that she can no longer understand exactly who she is or what she feels. It's a subtle feat that's far more satisfying than overt histrionics would have been. By her last scene in the film, where Patty finally is able to get some understanding of exactly what happened to her and why, you'll be impressed that she is able to convey the complete journey that her character takes without actually expressing it words. It's one of the many moments that make Patty Hearst worth watching.
Technically, this is a rather disappointing disc. As part of MGM's Limited Edition Collection series, it's pressed on a DVD-R that will not work on most computer DVD drives or DVD recorders. It's also a letdown that the anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer does not look so great. It's rather murky and it flickers in spots. The stereo mix is passable. The only extra is the film's theatrical trailer.
Patty Hearst is, in many ways, an insular and claustrophobic film, entirely by design. It's a film that takes place mostly in hideouts, living rooms, hotel rooms, vehicles, and cramped apartments. This is intentional, both to dramatize the suffocating life the SLA lived as fugitives and outlaws, and to show just how confining Hearst's daily life was even when she was supposedly "free" to join the group. It also serves as a metaphor for the restrictive ideology that binds the SLA together, ironically denying the very liberation they claim to fight for. This is an interesting idea, but some viewers may be put off by Schrader's approach. This is especially evident in the segment immediately following Patty's kidnapping, which lasts nearly 30 minutes. To effectively visualize her ordeal, Schrader shoots several of these scenes in black-and-white silhouettes seen from Patty's point of view. It's an unusual choice that will definitely try some viewers' patience. Some of Schrader's other films are more bold and epic visually but this one is so stubborn in its minimalism that it's hard to recommend it to viewers who don't already have an interest in either the subject matter or the director.
Viewers who expect Patty Hearst to be a gripping thriller or a dense sociopolitical screed will be surprised to see that it's really more of a low-key character study. Essentially, it boils down the story to its one fundamental component: a young woman who has been kidnapped and how she reacts to her nightmare. In the end, despite the media feeding frenzy that surrounded the case, the film correctly demonstrates that this would ultimately prove to be lasting legacy of the Patty Hearst story. Such a narrow focus may seem small to some viewers but it proves to be one that makes the film seem more honest and revealing than any other would have. Patty Hearst may not be exactly the film many viewers might imagine it would be, but it does have much to recommend it and anyone looking for a thoughtful examination of this story should seek it out.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated R