Given his title of Judge, Ian Visser assumes that he is part of the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.
"Urban guerrilla."—Occupation given by Patricia Hearst to police at the time of her arrest.
A fascinating slice of modern American history, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst traces the events around a crime that held the entire country breathless.
Note: This film has also been released with the title, Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Facts of the Case
On February 4, 1974, college student Patricia Hearst was snatched from her Berkley, California, apartment by a revolutionary group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Hearst was the grand-daughter of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and the wealthy Mr. Hearst was considered by the group to be guilty of crimes against the people.
Initial ransom demands ordered the Hearst family to donate $300 million in aid to the poor of California, but eventually the SLA accepted $2 million in food donations. In an attempt to improve the public's opinion of the group after the murder of school superintendent, the SLA subsequently requested another $4 million for additional aid. Hearst stopped supplying any ransom following this request and famously claimed that the matter was out of his hands.
Soon, the case was turned upside-down with the robbery of a Berkeley bank that generated the famous images of Patty Hearst with an assault rifle. Hearst claimed that she had thrown in her lot with the SLA and had changed her name to Tania in a revolutionary act. Audio tapes narrated by Hearst became outright inflammatory against the government and her family.
A second bank robbery by the SLA resulted in the death of an innocent bystander, Myrna Opsahl, and the group soon began to fall apart. Neighbors recognized the group living in their neighborhood, and a tip led to a vicious gun battle that resulted in Los Angeles police killing six SLA members. The entire incident was aired live in primetime television and was watched by Hearst from a hotel room only a few blocks away.
In all, Patty Hearst was held more than 600 days by the SLA. She was arrested with the remaining members in 1975 and claimed she had been brainwashed and forced to participate in SLA hold-ups on the threat of death. Hearst received six years in prison after a guilty verdict but was exonerated by Jimmy Carter after serving only 22 months.
That's a lot of information for Facts of the Case, but a lot happened in the relatively short period between late 1973 and 1975 with the Patty Hearst case. For the most part, director Robert Stone provides a lot of concise and practical information, but he often fails to fill in the gaps in the story.
The early minutes of the documentary are spent rapidly jumping through the late 1960s and into the early 1970s. Stone manages to gain interviews with two former SLA members, and traces the formation of SLA in the early 1970s as reaction to waning hippie movement. The group soon developed a determination to act violently against the government, and they relied on the use of audio tapes to spread propaganda and communicate with the media.
It's made clear that law enforcement agencies assigned to the case had no idea of what they were dealing with. And I don't mean that they were unprepared or overwhelmed, per se, but that they simply had no notion of what the SLA was or how much support it had. Stone carefully tracks how the FBI spent a lot of time placating the group, an attitude that is hard to comprehend in today's post-9/11 world. The FBI even went as far as to enlist the use of the U2 spy-plane to search the surrounding California desert for SLA training camps. It's almost painful to watch the police and hostage negotiators stumble around, trying to appease the wealthy Hearst family while a group of terrorists runs amok.
Stone manages to convey a strong sense of the madness around the case and the non-stop media circus that the event became. The footage of the shootout with SLA members is especially nerve-wracking. Although the footage has been re-edited from sources for the film, it is clear that utter chaos is breaking out, as reporters scramble amongst police and dodge bullets to get their footage. Stone attempts to draw a link between this live event (one of the first covered with remote satellite feeds) and our modern world of Bronco chases and 24/7 news coverage, but this angle goes mostly unexamined, and probably could have been left out of the final cut.
The film ends with a significant contrast; surviving SLA members are shown pleading guilty in 2003 on the charge of murder, while Hearst is shown walking away from prison and later telling her story on the talk-show circuit. The footage of the SLA allocutions is in the bonus section of the disc and provides a real look at how the attitudes of the 1960s got poisoned after only a few short years.
Docurama usually does a good job on their releases, and Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst continues this effort. The 1.85:1 widescreen print is fresh and crisp, with few defects. The vintage footage contains the expected grain and damage, but it is well-preserved and is not distracting. The audio mix is solidly aggressive, so when the rock tracks and bullet-sounds kick in, they give the viewer a jump.
The features included on the disc do a good job of filling in some of the gaps left by the feature. The audio commentary by director Stone is full of additional information about the case and the filmmaking process, and he clearly has an enthusiasm for the film. The period features, including the raw footage of the notorious Hibernia Bank robbery, are invaluable as a historical reference. The full collection of the six tapes made by Hearst while being held is an amazing resource; the viewer can hear the change in Hearst's personality as her days pass in captivity. The whole story gets wrapped up with the sentencing testimony given in 2003 by SLA members convicted of murder stemming from the Crocker Bank robbery in Carmichael, CA. Viewers also get a trailer and a filmmaker biography.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there is a major flaw in Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, it's that the director assumes we already know much about the case. There is scarce background information given on the social and political scene leading up to the kidnapping, and there is little to explain the prevailing social changes from the 1960s to the early 1970s as the hippie movement began to wear down. This is critical, as this decline of interest by the left sparked the SLA to its increasingly radical action.
Even worse, there is virtually no information provided on any of the SLA members. For the most part, the viewer only gets a name and a photograph, and no details about who any of these people were, or what sparked them to become revolutionaries. Considering the drastic measures SLA members took, it would have served the film better if we could understand something about these people and how they came to the movement.
A final issue is the lack of explanation about the pardon and release of Patty Hearst. Stone provides no insight into public sentiment towards Hearst at the time of her release, or the reaction of those in the SLA who continued to serve long sentences for the same crimes. The film mentions a campaign by Hearst's supporters to change her public image after her incarceration, but we never learn if this was the reason for her release, or if it was successful.
Stone's failure to provide enough background on the movement and its members leaves the viewer with significant lapses in information as the story unfolds. I found myself asking more questions than the film was able to provide. This may be a film about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, but the failure to place the event in perspective with the larger story hampers the viewers understanding.
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst gets high marks for uncovering new material surrounding the case and taking the viewer inside a fascinating point in American history. If only it had delved deeper into the characters and their histories, this documentary could have made a more significant impact.
Not guilty, you fascist pigs!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Video
• Audio Commentary with Director Robert Stone
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