Movie Review--Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst

Patty Hearst

I recently watched a very clever documentary called “Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst.” (Its other title is Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army. This is a better title, but it doesn't have quite the hook that the girl's name has.) I got it because I've always had a morbid fascination with the story of the Symbionese Liberation Army and Patty Hearst, but this particular commentary has much broader appeal than that.

Alternating between archive footage and interviews, what emerges is the story of a band of young idealists slowly driven off the edge by what, in the end, is clear to everybody as a foolish dream. Some of the interviewees are from the media; the late Tim Findley is a particular highlight. Two of the interviewees are former members of the SLA. One was an early member who watched the Patty Hearst spectacle from prison, and the other was a latecomer and only got involved by chance. Their mix of insider and outsider perspectives is the real treasure of the film.

Fortunately, this is a plot that most everyone knows, so there's no fear of spoilers. The plot starts with the SLA and their early activities, culminating in the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst. They start off as a group of angry youths with no real plan. Senior member Donald DeFreeze starts driving them in the direction of armed revolution, and against the better judgment of some of the members they murder the first black Superintendent of Schools in Oakland. A short while after two SLA members are arrested after a shootout with the police and charged with the murder. One of the two is interviewee Russell Little.

SLA logoBecause one of the members works in the registrar's office at UC Berkeley they know that Patty Hearst is a student there, and their next (and last) major move is to kidnap her and hold her hostage. The demands from Randolph Hearst and the police begin.

Their first demand is the release of the two SLA prisoners in exchange for Patty Hearst. When this is not granted, they demand the distribution of varying amounts of groceries to the poor. And of course, all along the way their statements are to be published in full in Hearst's newspapers.

The excitement this saga held for the radical Left is made clear by Michael Bortin, who would join the group a year later. Watching from Berkeley, he felt the excitement that maybe the dream really could be realized. Despite the SLA's threat to execute their prisoner, passions were high.

Meanwhile, nobody has any idea of the size or strength of the group, so at first they spark real concern. Soon, they appear to grow strange and desperate. The victim herself begins issuing statements, first simply for reassurance that she is alive and well, and later as a willing member of the group. Members of the media can hardly take them seriously except as sensations to cover, and even Russell Little starts wondering what they are thinking.

Patty Hearst robbing the Hibernia BankEventually several members are found in Los Angeles and killed in a fight with the police. The remaining members attempt to salvage the effort, but by now they have nothing more to gain and, as Hearst is now a willing member, no real leverage. It is more and more clear that they are a bunch of clueless dreamers. Bortin's comment is that on meeting the three remaining core members what struck him was how much intelligence and charisma they lacked. It's not only the group: footage of a pro-SLA rally in Berkeley and of the sympathetic crowds outside the police station where the group was booked after their anti-climactic capture come across as naive and ridiculous. And not just from my perspective, but from Bortin's too.

As for Patty Hearst herself, almost immediately after capture she changed her tune from urban guerrilla to brainwashing victim, and it's clear at the end of the film that she was and always will be at heart a newspaper heiress, not a bomb-throwing ideologue.

Perhaps the most brilliant part of the production of the movie is how Bortin's interview goes from strict commentary to part of the story arc. The interviews were conducted in 2001, and in it he denies knowledge of who killed a bystander in a bank robbery near the end of the story in 1975. We then learn that later a fugitive member of the SLA was found and that four members, Bortin among them, confessed to the robbery and accidental killing. Russ Little, now living a normal life in Hawai'i, really puts the icing on the cake by pointing out that now, being older, he sees that people aren't interested in revolution. They're worried about their mortgages and their kids. The society where everyone shares everything was a nice dream, but it was just a dream.

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"people aren’t interested

"people aren’t interested in revolution. They’re worried about their mortgages and their kids. The society where everyone shares everything was a nice dream, but it was just a dream."

And thats just how its best!.... Rivers of blood tend to follow revolutionaries.

I guess private property

I guess private property isn't that bad after all.