Guerilla: The Taking Of Patty Hearst

on January 31, 2004 by Susan Green
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Paul Schrader's "Patty Hearst," a 1988 biopic about the California heiress kidnapped 14 years earlier by self-styled freedom fighters, took an impressionistic approach to the issue of shifting identity. "Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst" is somewhat less interested in the bedeviling question of why this 19-year-old college student would reinvent herself as a gun-toting revolutionary named Tania. But the new documentary by Robert Stone ("Radio Bikini," 1987) chronicles the entire bizarre period, which includes one of America's pioneering media circuses.

"Mom, Dad, I'm with a combat unit that's armed with automatic weapons," Patty says in a Valley Girl voice on the first reel-to-reel audio released by her captors. The Symbionese Liberation Army, which snatches the young woman from her Berkeley apartment, is an odd vestige of the political movements that flourished in the late 1960s. To this day, nobody seems to know precisely what the name 'Symbionese' was supposed to mean. Among other things, they demand $3 million worth of food giveaways to the poor.

A few contemporary talking heads, mostly reporters and former SLA radicals, give a long-range perspective. But the film's strongest suit is abundant news footage from that era. TV coverage, carried live at the time, provides remarkable up-close-and-personal scenes of the eventual Los Angeles showdown between lawmen and the SLA, five of whom die in the conflagration. Still Tania, Patty is safe in a motel near Disneyland, not to be found until 592 days after her initial disappearance. She serves 22 months in prison before Jimmy Carter commutes her sentence. Bill Clinton later grants a full pardon. She can now be seen acting in any number of cult movies by John Waters. "Guerrilla," though a bit less seamless than similar docs such as "The Weather Underground," is an absorbing glimpse of some rather strange American history. Starring Michael Bortin, Timothy Findley and Russell Little. Directed and produced by Robert Stone. A Magnolia release. Historical documentary. Unrated. Running time: 88 min

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