Robert Stone’s provocative documentary gives a thorough accounting of the events that gripped the nation, creating a film almost as powerful and effective as Owen Morris’ The Fog of War.
In 1974, a revolutionary faction calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army–SLA for short–kidnapped millionaire heiress Patricia Hearst. As her father negotiated for her release, Hearst suddenly switched sides, taking the name “Tania” and becoming involved in the group’s terrorist activities. It may sound like something out of The Manchurian Candidate, but the SLA held Hearst in their grips for over a year, all documented in this powerful film.
As the “year of the documentary” rolls on, filmmaker Robert Stone takes a more traditional approach to the genre, using archival footage and interviews with former SLA members to recount the events that separated the peaceful protests of the 60’s with a darker era of revolt.
The foremost interviewee is Russ Little, a charter member of the SLA who was imprisoned with another member after being found with guns used in the murder of a school chancellor. Their capture inspired the SLA to kidnap millionaire’s daughter Patty Hearst as a bargaining tool to get their imprisoned comrades released. Originally, the group saw themselves as freedom fighters or modern-day Robin Hoods, taking on the corrupt police and government. They even demanded a food distribution system to feed the poor and hungry, as part of their demands for the release of Hearst. Later, things get ugly as they turned to bank robbery and wanton terrorist activities to make their point. Despite the questionable merits to their actions, the youth of the era looked up to the actions of Patty and the SLA, turning them into popular criminals like Bonnie and Clyde.
Stone proves himself to be a competent documentarian on a par with Owen Morris. Although the kidnapping and presumed brainwashing of Patty Hearst is the film’s fulcrum, Stone creates a powerful picture of a country in turmoil that warrants the formation of a group like the SLA. It bears eerie parallels to the state of the country today, since of the same elements were in play back in the early ’70s-a country at war and the reelection of an unpopular president, for instance.
Stone’s real coup is the recovery of hours of amazing archival footage from local and national television outlets that filmed the events as they happened. Many of them have not been seen in over thirty years. The security camera images of the SLA’s bank robbery and the L.A. standoff with the police are every bit as eerie as anything seen in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. They’re narrated by the haunting audiotapes of Hearst and the other SLA members reading their demands to the police, something that the media eats up. You can see the very nature of journalism change as the cameras and reporters camp outside the Hearst home for weeks trying to find a story rather than simply reporting the facts.
Some may have gripes with the way some of the events are depicted, because Stone seems to be glamorizing a group that were essentially murderers and criminals, while trying to get the viewer to empathize with them. The choice of interview subjects doesn’t help much, since Little was in prison the entire time the events depicted were occurring and the other SLA member interviewed, Mike Bortin, joined later and was only peripherally associated with the group. Of course, everyone else is either dead or imprisoned. Because Stone never talks to Patricia Hearst or any of the members of her family, it lessens the impact a bit, while leaving unanswered the burning question of whether Hearst was brainwashed or willingly fell in with her captors because she empathized with their ideals.
The film ends with a bizarre recent appearance by Hearst on Sarah Fergusson’s short-lived talk show. Even thirty years later, there’s still a glint in Heart’s eye that almost says “I know what really happened and you’ll never find out,” which is sure to keep the mystery and intrigue behind the events alive for a lot longer.
“Guerrilla” opens in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco on Friday.