Director Robert Stone’s taut, terse, utterly fascinating new documentary presents a familiar scenario: In a time of war and civil unrest, just after the re-election of a virulently right-wing president, a group of overeducated young lefties — frustrated with their own lives and the oppressive mood of the country in general — finally snaps. No, this isn’t Michael Moore’s fan club, or a backstage look at last fall’s Rock for Change tour. The year is 1974, and a ragtag bunch of would-be revolutionaries calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army plan to make their voices heard in a big way, by kidnapping one of the most prominent heiresses in the nation. Needless to say, things only get worse from there.
From its first frame, Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst should prove riveting both to those who originally followed the two-year rise and fall of the SLA, as well as to those who were merely breast-feeding while their mothers watched the copious live TV coverage. The subject has been analyzed to the point of self-parody over the course of the past 30 years: a hostage who comes to identify with and subsequently join her terrorist kidnappers, defined by pop psychology as the Stockholm Syndrome. But Stone manages to dissect the Hearst trauma in new and compelling ways.
Working from a wealth of archival footage and only a handful of talking-head interviews, Stone proves he’s as good at the technique of documentary filmmaking as he is at the research. Without imposing a voice-over on the film — a cue perhaps borrowed from master documentarian Errol Morris — he weaves together SLA home movies with clips of Robin Hood and the pop-culture cues by which the members claim to have been inspired. Everything from Hare Krishnas to the Kent State massacres were fuel for the group’s off-the-rails notions of community and charity, and Stone unearths the ideal footage to illustrate their beliefs. The filmmaker’s only misstep is a cheesy, hallucinatory montage during the reading of Hearst’s account of the ordeal.
Of course, there’s no way the tight-lipped Hearst would ever agree to participate in something like Guerilla, but Stone’s coverage is so good, the film doesn’t need her. Using her glassy-eyed talk show appearance as the ultimate ironic counterpoint, the director reminds us that Hearst’s cushy post-terrorist existence was a far cry from the sorry fates of her one-time “comrades.”
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].