A tough trip back to the era of Patty Hearst

If you think life in America is wild and woolly these days, consider the early ’70s, when Radical Chic was de rigueur and when talk of the violent overthrow of the government wafted through space stations like Berkeley, Calif. There, such rhetoric was as much a part of daily life as clearlight acid and the tie-dye T-shirts favored by the radical children of orthodontists.

Capping the weirdness of it all was the Feb. 4, 1974 kidnapping of the 19-year-old newspaper heiress Patty Hearst from her apartment in Berkeley, where she lived with her fiance, Steven Weed.

The event became an instant media circus that endured for more than a year and a half, a maelstrom detailed in Robert Stone’s unsatisfying documentary ”Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst,” airing tonight as part of ”American Experience” on WGBH.

The tiny band that took Hearst called itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. Led by an escaped convict seething with hatred of American society, Donald DeFreeze, they were a lost lot of lethal delusionals who never numbered more than a dozen. Yet they managed to murder the Oakland school superintendent, Marcus Foster, in 1973, before six of them died fiery deaths in 1974, in a shootout with the Los Angeles police that was captured in chaotic real time on live television.

Stranger still, Patty Hearst appeared to have become one of them, participating in a bank robbery and uttering statements on tape such as ”Death to fascist insects that prey on people.” Hearst called herself ”Tanya,” after a woman who purportedly fought with Che Guevara in Bolivia, and she famously snapped ”urban guerrilla” when asked, after her capture, what her occupation was. (Her prison sentence for participating in a bank robbery was commuted by President Jimmy Carter after 22 months.)

All this is sensational, but ”Guerrilla” lacks depth. We take little away from it, other than the virulent pathology of a dozen psychos and the media fascination with them. The movie is riveting the way a five-car accident is riveting.

One problem is that we don’t hear from Hearst herself. Producer/director Stone made the unfortunate decision not to ask her to talk.

She remains the nut we’d like to crack. Just where in her soul does the aftershock of the experience reside? We do hear from one early SLA member who provides nothing but self-serving distance between him and the others. A later member serves up more blather about SLA motives.

Nor do we glean what the rest of the country thought about the Hearst affair. Did America believe the SLA was the tip of an ungodly iceberg? Or was it a tiny mutant strain of the extreme left? What about the media blanket that descended on the story? Was it considered overkill? Or was it simply the logical extension of the footage that brought Vietnam into our living rooms? Is its DNA to be found in today’s unmodulated coverage of Michael Jackson’s latest psychodrama?

Stone called the Hearst media frenzy unprecedented, but such attention was hardly new. Coverage of the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby in 1932 was extraordinary. (The infant was on the cover of Time magazine.)

And the film’s repeated use of Errol Flynn’s old Robin Hood film clips is tiresome. We get the rob-the-rich SLA philosophy early in the game.

”Guerrilla” is a time capsule containing the worst strains of homegrown extremism that existed during the vertiginous time of Watergate and Vietnam. It is fascinating, unfiltered history. Stone chose to put it all out there rather than to probe issues such as the ”Stockholm Syndrome,” in which captives adopt the ideology of their captors. Is that what happened to Patty Hearst? Or did she at some point stop being a victim?

The big question about ”Guerrilla” is this: What did the taking of Patty Hearst mean? Anything?


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Boston Globe, USA
May 23, 2005
Sam Allis, Globe Staff
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday May 23, 2005.
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