First of all, what's with the title of this documentary: Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst? What's a "taking"? Is that like a nicer version of kidnapping? (SLA dude with machine gun and open trunk: "Patty, honey, we're not kidnapping you, we're taking you." Hearst: "Well, okay. I guess that'll be all right. As long as you're only taking me.")
I don't know--it's just a weird choice of words for something that was actually quite sick and brutal. As far as I know, Patty Hearst--a 19-year-old student when she was kidnapped in 1974--was tortured and raped by the mean, smelly hippies-gone-wrong of the SLA. She was raped. Raped. This is not mentioned until the end of the film, where it's presented as near-conjecture--Patty Hearst's possibly invented story to get herself out of a prison sentence for collusion with the SLA. Ditto the fact that she was confined to a closet, blindfolded, for weeks.
What filmmaker Robert Stone can't fudge as easily is the fact that in her recorded statements to her family--delivered periodically throughout her lengthy time with the SLA--Hearst sounds drugged or otherwise whacked out of her banana, even as she claims to renounce her life of privilege and join the people's fight, et cetera. She's not baked; she's fried. (Even after, she speaks with an unsettling, scripted sort of drawl, as if she wasn't only brainwashed, but brain damaged. Bizarre.) Also a bit funky is the film's apparent crush on Patty-as-urban-guerrilla. I mean, granted, she looks hot with a gun and trench coat, but it's easy to seize on that image without really examining the non-Geneva tactics that were used to twist her psyche inside out. Simply having an expert or two agree that she's a classic case of Stockholm syndrome isn't really enough.
Still, despite its somewhat yucky approach, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst is much more gripping and (re-)watchable than you'd ever expect. It's an incredibly flawed documentary, but fascinating in its failures.
The apparent goal of the film is to give a fresh, contemporary, contrarian view of the whole SLA saga, telling the story from a new perspective: the kidnappers'. This relative lack of balance feels calculated, like an attempt to counterbalance the crush of anti-SLA propaganda in books and film. I guess that's valid, if the ultimate goal is edification. It's totally compelling, anyway.
A number of former SLA people are interviewed here; the most stunning talks are with Russell Little, an SLA founder who was in prison during Hearst's kidnapping, and Mike Bortin, who joined up post-kidnapping, after many more important members had been killed by police. These two men present a straight-up dichotomy of character: Little is affable, thoughtful, willing to admit his mistakes, openly critical of the neurotic cultiness of the SLA. Bortin, on the other hand, is clearly nuts--a super-scary hippie. He's got a glazed look and makes terrible dry-mouth noises as he attempts to defend or at least romanticize the murderers/rapists of the SLA--mouthing tired '60s jargon, still hypnotized by the lies he told himself to justify his sins. (A postscript at film's end confirms the viewer's suspicion that this guy's been hiding something--something big.)
Guerrilla recounts the story of the SLA from its jumbled beginnings to its rise to full-blown, media-manipulating terrorist organization. Inspired by Che Guevara and other Latin American radicals, the early members of the SLA (short for Symbionese Liberation Army, whatever that means) decide to kidnap Hearst with hopes of exchanging her for Little (imprisoned for the SLA assassination of Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster).
As presented through wonderful archival footage, the news media camped outside the Hearsts' home are just as naive and uncertain as the SLA; so are Hearst's bewildered parents and the longhairs at KPFA who broadcast SLA statements. No one has a clue what they're doing, or that they're making grave historical mistakes, indulging terrorists and paving the way for O.J. Simpson's reality show.
The film goes on to retell the SLA's doings, from their attempts to get the Hearst family to establish a multimillion-dollar food bank for poor people to their gradual descent into creepy/crazy old-lady-killers. (Their ill-fated bank robberies are framed a bit romantically as a neo-Bonnie and Clyde kinda thing.)
Stone tries to present the SLA kids (and they were only kids, as one member points out) as deeply American renegades struggling under circumstances parallel to today's: an unjust war, corporate-puppet political regimes, domestic poverty and racism, news censorship, on and on. At moments the film almost seems to be subtly addressing the viewer: Judge all you want, but what have you done lately to stop global fascism?
Of course, as Little admits, the SLA messed up almost every chance they had to do the right thing and actually use their power for popular good. The Hearst kidnapping was just the most obvious example of that. With the benefit of 30 years, and a greater understanding of terrorism, it seems clear that this crime accomplished nothing except to damage and kill innocent people, discredit leftist politics, and provide some really exciting news reports for a while--including the live-video feed of the police standoff in L.A. that killed six SLA members.
Ultimately, though, what the film conveys most effectively--albeit unintentionally, perhaps--is the unspeakable and often forgotten sadness at the heart of America in the late '60s and early '70s. You will not find a gloomier parade of figures than the lost souls populating this film, from the Hearsts to the poor people lined up at the Patty-Hearst-free-food giveaway. (One woman essentially tells a reporter, I don't want to take advantage of that girl's situation, but I've got to feed my kids.) Everyone in the historical footage looks so cool in that early '70s, sideburns-and-a-shag way--even the cops!--and they're all fucking miserable. You can just feel it. That's certainly not as sexy a theme for a film as the shock of violence, the glamour of media hype, and the drama of "revolution." But when the story's done and the movie is over, it's the one that sticks with you.