Stranger-than-fiction story recounted in context of its time
Despite what nostalgic TV shows say, the ’70s were a rocky, often rotten time for America.
Troubles began in May 1970, with National Guardsmen killing four students at Kent State University in Ohio, and ran through the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. In between came the last days of Vietnam, vice president Spiro Agnew’s crooked shenanigans, the public shaming of Watergate, fuel shortages, the rise of cocaine and countless other headaches.
Smack in the middle of the decade stood the most bizarre kidnapping of the century: The heisting of Patricia Hearst, one of the heiresses to a huge media fortune, by a tiny group of murderous radicals best known as the SLA.
“Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst” brings back those days in all their ludicrous non-glory, from the founding of this collective to the members’ ultimate deaths and arrests. British director Robert Stone takes a dispassionate look at this circus, and his retelling of events makes the situation more complicated than I remembered.
The United Federated Forces of the Symbionese Liberation Army — a grand name for a group that held no more than two dozen people — attracted attention by slaying Marcus Foster, first black school superintendent of Oakland, Calif., in November 1973.
Three months later, the SLA kidnapped an art history major at Berkeley. She went in as Patty Hearst, a victim who earned national sympathy; she emerged as “Tania,” holding a gun during a bank robbery and spouting, “Death to the fascist insects that prey on the lives of the people!”
Two of those “fascists,” her multimillionaire parents, insisted she was brainwashed. When Patty was arrested 19 months after her disappearance, she said so, too. Though she’d given her occupation as “urban guerrilla” to the cops who picked her up, though she’d smiled through robberies and been present when one person was fatally shot, she now claimed she’d acted only to protect herself. She didn’t explain why she’d skipped so many opportunities to escape and recant.
Stone interviews reporters and police authorities from that time, though only two SLA members speak to him: Russ Little, who was in jail when Hearst was snatched, and Michael Bortin, who joined later and provided a safe house for the last three “soldiers” (Bill and Emily Harris and Hearst).
Neither Little nor Bortin expresses much remorse for the group’s killings and woundings. Those were the ’70s, man: Things got out of hand. If the pigs were trying to kill you, you had to kill some pigs or, in Foster’s case, supposedly progressive people who fronted for pigs. (As Stone notes, this was a time when “revolutionaries” considered every black man in a California prison — including SLA co-founder Donald DeFreeze — a political prisoner).
In some freakish way, Little and Bortin make the case that the SLA could have had a positive effect, if it had mounted a gradual, overtly political campaign. The group’s first demand to Hearst’s father was that he feed poor people across the San Francisco area, which won some public favor. Yet faux Che Guevara spoutings and violent behavior cost the SLA as much support as it gained, even among left-leaning Californians.
The movie doesn’t strain to make its final point: SLA members didn’t affect the vast divides among U.S. economic classes, nor were they treated equitably. Hearst spent just 22 months in prison, far less than her cohorts, before President Carter commuted her sentence; she became a popular talk-show guest and sometime film actress and has never spoken about the affair.
P.S. “Guerrilla” is being shown by the Charlotte Film Society. The other offerings are Michael Haneke’s “Time of the Wolf,” a French movie about strangers awaiting salvation in a post-apocalyptic world; “Schultze Gets the Blues,” about a German senior citizen who finds a new musical and emotional life on the Louisiana bayou; and “Up and Down,” a tragicomedy about Czechs adjusting to the global economy and open borders after long isolation.
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst
Documentary about the kidnapping and possible brainwashing of one of the ’70s most controversial figures. Worthwhile ride through recent history.
DIRECTOR: Robert Stone.
LENGTH: 89 minutes.
RATING: NR (violence, some profanity).