washingtonpost.com  > Music > Philip Kennicott

'Guerrilla': Revolutionary Has-Been

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2004; Page C01

Watch Robert Stone's new documentary, "Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst," and try to care. Try to care about the little rich girl who may have been brainwashed by her gun-toting captors. Try to care about the misguided kids who got sucked into the pseudo-revolutionary fervor of the Symbionese Liberation Army and ended up paying with their lives. Try to care about a tormented America, racked by race riots, war in Vietnam and a corrupt president.

Try to care, if you can. It isn't easy. Stone's film comes on the 30th anniversary of the strange events of 1974, when the heiress to a publishing fortune was grabbed by a loosely organized self-styled people's army, which she eventually aided in a brief but deadly campaign of robbery and murder. Hearst, who drove the getaway car at a bank robbery that left a woman dead, served two years in prison before her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter; six members of the SLA were not so lucky and died in a fiery shootout with police.

Patty Hearst, here in her iconic Symbionese Liberation Army photo from 1974, has praised "Guerrilla," calling it a fair and accurate portrait. (Magnolia Pictures)

_____More in Movies_____
'Guerilla': Showtimes
Movie Trailer Library
Current Movie Openings
Arts & Living: Movies

The filmmaker has put together a methodical, well-researched retelling of the story. He has bagged interviews with at least two peripheral members of the SLA. He has even earned the esteem of Hearst herself, who in an interview has praised "Guerrilla" for its fair and accurate portrait.

But, really, why bother returning to this execrable chapter in American history? The SLA was a small gang of psychotic wing nuts. Their ridiculously inflated military titles -- the leader of this platoon-size army dubbed himself General Field Marshal Cinque -- suggests the narcissism at the root of their supposedly loving ideology. They put honest revolutionary rhetoric through the Mao-a-matic and came up with pure gibberish: "Death to the Fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!" Their willingness to kill civilians, bystanders, anyone in their way, transformed them from a gang of fuzzy-headed ideologues into a gang of fuzzy-headed criminals and negated any sympathy their free-floating anger at the Man might have inspired. They and their ilk have not only given revolutionaries a bad name; they've been used like a club to bash away at the social aspirations of an entire generation.

Stone argues, not entirely successfully, that the Patty Hearst story isn't just an aberration but a significant marker in American social history. It captured the public imagination, sent journalists into one of the first 24/7 news frenzies of the electronic media era and inspired a hysterical fear of terrorism that haunts us still, ever more so now in the age of 9/11. For these reasons, Stone seems to say, we should care.

But then we hear Hearst's voice on those famous tapes with which the SLA created its mesmerizing and erratic public image. It's the voice of a spoiled child, taunting her parents. "Mom should get out of her black dress," she tells the world. "That doesn't help at all." It's a whiny voice, a self-absorbed voice, bored with a world that isn't constructed entirely to her immediate liking. A little bit of Patty -- or Tania, as she called herself when knocking over banks, goes a very long way.

You want to say, a pox on both their houses, on the SLA and the Hearst kid, and on her addled parents, who, unlike most of us, had the money to negotiate with the SLA -- to the point of shelling out big-time for a tragicomic food giveaway to the poor, demanded by the kidnappers.

It's always possible that Hearst was, in fact, brainwashed. That would mean this ugly tale has a victim and a possible claim on our sympathy. But Stone (who is not, by the way, the novelist of the same name) decides not to touch the question -- personal motivation and guilt are vulgar irrelevancies when your real subject is the larger cultural background.

Stone's film is a case study in cultural analysis that aims at too much and achieves too little. He interweaves clips from old Zorro and Robin Hood movies to emphasize SLA member Russ Little's sense that there was something in the air, some kind of swashbuckling, redistribute-the-wealth impulse lurking in the zeitgeist. And he resorts to the ultimate cheap and easy thesis, that the whole thing was ultimately about the media, those irresponsible purveyors of fantasy who, well, prey upon the life of the people. News flash: When it comes to covering the kidnapping of young, sexy, rich celebrities, the news media always do a bad job. There's no traction in blaming television for being hysterical.

Stone gets credit, however, for digging up lots of interesting footage. And there is one, perhaps accidental, insight, that comes from Little. When talking about the SLA's early motivation for revolution, he cites all the usual despair of life in 1974 -- an unwinnable war and a president seemingly indifferent to its moral and mortal costs -- and says he was angry, and he was protesting. But what's the next step after protest -- "what else are we willing to do?" he asks. That's the question, the way of framing things, that distinguishes both people of conscience and violent ideologues from the rest of the democratic mass. It's all in how you answer it.

Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (90 minutes, at Landmark E Street) is not rated but contains obscenity and footage of a shootout.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company