No news story resonated more for me in 1974 than the kidnapping of California heiress Patty Hearst. Our wildly different lives had convergent points: We trod the same leafy residential streets in Berkeley; friends banked at the branch she held up at gun-point; my dad collected a meager paycheck from her dad, Randolph Hearst, publisher and editor of the San Francisco Examiner. I fantasized about spotting Patty on the lam. And now, 30 years later, thanks to Robert Stone's fascinating documentary Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, it all makes sense.
Like last year's film The Weather Underground that cast a baleful eye over 1960s social and political idealism morphing into indefensible terrorism, Guerrilla lays bare the fallacies of one terrorist group, the United Federated Forces of the Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA.
Stone presents the story in chronological order -- from the SLA's humble beginnings through its abduction of Patty Hearst and the inevitable fiery conclusion months later. Along the way, Patty takes the nom de guerre "Tania," robs banks and pleads with her parents to drop their "fascist" ways. It was an unthinkable transformation, yet this was a highly public narrative.
While there is much to digest and ponder in Guerrilla -- the cultural wounds still left gaping between classes, races and ideologies after the '60s; the story's inherent bizarreness -- Stone's access to television-news archives relates an illustrative side story: Here is the birth of the television media frenzy, at that desirable intersection of celebrity and crime, and forever breaking. From the daily updates and never-seen footage (like the food riots or bored reporters at their "camp" outside Hearst's mansion) to the final horrific showdown that played out live on afternoon television, TV media cut its teeth on the kidnapping, and established patterns and procedures that would ably see it through the high-profile events of the next three decades.
Such footage propels the film, which pauses only briefly for reflection in contemporary interviews with former SLA members, media, law enforcement and others. Stone never interviews Patty Hearst, who later renounced her time with the SLA. Hence, her true level of involvement remains enigmatic, and to some degree, still an available fantasy for armchair revolutionaries: Can the rich be radicalized?
It's ironic that Randolph Hearst, master of a nationwide media empire, proved ill-equipped in this arena, while the SLA was preternaturally savvy about exploiting it. Lefty radio station KPFA played the group's recorded messages while TV news crews filmed the tape revolving; Hearst read SLA statements denouncing himself aloud on live TV, while his daily papers ran banner headlines. It's no wonder it marked me.