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'Guerrilla': Hardly Radical

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2004; Page WE39

IN THIS WORLD of plentiful movies, competition for filmgoers' attentions is at an all-time ferocity. Which makes it imperative that a documentary have nothing short of scintillating attitude. The d-word is a killer for many people. It says dutiful, dull and deadly. If midterm began with "d," it would say that, too. A documentary needs to shake up, change, provoke, excite and pretty much make you completely forget you're watching a, you know.

This does not have to mean sensationalism. It just means: say it more imaginatively or find greater significance than the surface one. Make it worth watching. Make it essential.

"Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst" examines Hearst's involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army, including the 1974 robbing of Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. (Magnolia Pictures)

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"Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst" is a fascinating, straight-ahead account of the short-lived history of the Symbionese Liberation Army, whose brief, disastrous life was highlighted by the kidnapping of heiress Patricia Campbell Hearst. And there's ample reason to watch it. But it's not essential viewing.

Disgusted by the United States' Vietnam policy, a small collection of middle-class radicals decided to take direct and brutal action. They formed the Symbionese Liberation Army, using a seven-headed snake as their symbol and installing convicted armed robber Donald DeFreeze as its leader. Their slogan, "Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people," was hardly the most user-friendly public message in the universe. And they didn't help their cause by assassinating genial African American school superintendent Marcus Foster, declaring him a stooge of the Oakland, Calif., police.

But when they kidnapped Hearst, the granddaughter of news magnate William Randolph Hearst, they started an imbroglio that became The Event of 1974. The captors' demands were many and confusing, including a directive to Patty's family to feed the poor. Patty remained under capture. But a kidnap story turned into something even more compelling when this upper-class, all-American girl declared herself one of the SLA, adopted the nom de guerre of Tania (named after Che Guevara's girlfriend) and helped rob the Hibernia Bank of San Francisco.

"Guerrilla" (whose original title was "Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army") offers insightful interviews with former SLA members Russ Little and Mike Bortin, and renders the Hearst/SLA story effectively with memorable news footage. But there isn't much to lift the movie into a higher realm.

Director Robert Stone tries a little bit. He crosscuts the highlights of the SLA's hostage story with clips of the 1938 Errol Flynn movie "The Adventures of Robin Hood." But there isn't, for instance, more than passing implication about the way Nixon/Kissinger's America reflects Bush/Rumsfeld's America, in which the political left and much of the rest of the world feels disenfranchised and left out of the party altogether. In a sense, too, the Hearst saga seemed to launch an extended era of powerlessness, in which terrorists and kidnappers have been able to exploit the media ever since. It stretches all the way to the events of 9/11. But if there's timeliness to be found, you'll have to mine most of it yourself. "Guerrilla" is an engaging film, but it's a documentary and nothing more.

GUERRILLA: THE TAKING OF PATTY HEARST (Unrated, 90 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and news footage of an incendiary shootout. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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