[14 February 2006]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Mom? Dad? I’m with a combat unit that’s armed with automatic weapons.
The events of September 11, 2001 happened while I was in the early stages of cutting this film…. Since that time, the subject of political terrorism has kind of jumped to the forefront of people’s minds, so this whole story took on a new significance while I was making it.
—Robert Stone, commentary, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst
“Even though this film is thoroughly immersed in the 1970s, I think it’s a timeless story… and I wanted to create a documentary that would unfold like a political thriller and not be rooted solely in the past.” Robert Stone’s description of Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst lays out its tensions acutely and evocatively. The film does bridge past and present, in sometimes eerie ways, tracing the initial marriage of terrorism and television, the connections between melodrama and news, sensationalism and ideology.
From its early moments—a focus on the emblematic tape recorder by which Patty Hearst’s saga was delivered to journalists amassed in her famous parents’ driveway—Guerrilla breaks down how terrorism becomes a function of its audience. Combining interviews and archival footage (much unseen before this film), Stone shows the effects of Hearst’s kidnapping on the self-image developed by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), and vice versa. While founding SLA member Russ Little imagines himself a product of a childhood spent watching movie adventurers like Errol Flynn, Mike Bortin—who became a member later, after many of the original members had been killed in the famously televised L.A. shootout, and still wears mutton chop sideburns—links his involvement to his opposition to the war in Vietnam. (As Stone says in the DVD commentary, “Vietnam doesn’t explain the SLA, but it does explain the environment in which this group came together.”)
As the film reveals, the SLA first emerged into the “public consciousness” when they assassinated Marcus Foster, the (first African American) superintendent of Oakland’s public schools. As notorious as the group became with this “appalling act that made no sense whatsoever” (so described by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Tim Findley, the documentary’s third primary interviewee), the Hearst kidnapping on 4 February 1974 made them worldwide. As Stone describes it in his commentary, “This really was America’s first encounter with modern, media-driven terrorism.” (The DVD features terrific extras that elaborate on this process, including 53 minutes of Patty Hearst’s tapes to her parents, plus seven minutes of Hibernia Bank robbery and 27 minutes of Sacramento courtroom footage, when members were convicted of the shooting of Hibernia employee
While Guerrilla illustrates that the SLA imagined themselves as revolutionaries in the vein of Che Guevara or the kidnappers in Costa-Gavras’ State of Siege, it also shows otherwise: they were searching for an identity and a coherent cause, influenced by what Stone calls “pop culture roots… They really loved movies.” (He recalls that Hearst told him that the two films they took her to see while she was being indoctrinated were State of Siege and Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds.) The white members were especially moved by the romance embodied by Cinque (born Donald DeFreeze), as “black prison inmates were the most oppressed of the oppressed.” Radicalized in prison and then escaped, Cinque encouraged his followers to fight the “fascist pigs” (and is the basis for Ving Rhames’ incredible performance in Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst).
But, as Stone says, if the group begins as a political group, it transforms into a cult, referring to Cinque as “the fifth prophet,” even as the police and Randolph Hearst “continue to deal with them as a real political threat.” This is connected to the melodrama of Patty Hearst, in the sense that her own transformation—her immersion in the group and succumbing to the Stockholm Syndrome—was a public saga. When she speaks to her parents, saying, for instance, “Mom should get out of her black dress, that doesn’t help at all,” the intersections of tv and Hearst’s own experience come flying to the forefront. She’s seen her mother on tv, or her captors have, and now they are orchestrating the spectacle.
Stone’s film includes no interviews with Patty Hearst, a decision he says in the commentary, premised on his focus on her effects (“It’s her enigma that makes her interesting”). “To me,” he says, “it’s what we made of her, and by extension what we made of the SLA, and how and why that came about that really forms the central thesis of the film. And it’s what gives this story relevancy, beyond being something of historical interest, because you seem the same forces at work today.”
According to Stone, the film charts the “beginnings of the broadcast news media becoming an extension of the entertainment industry” and, no small thing, “a serious source of revenue” and mixed interests between journalism and (case in point: one of the reporters, John Lester, became the Hearst family spokesman as the case dragged on for nearly two years). As Stone notes, the reporters were not tracking down leads or following up on the story, but gathered in the driveway daily to shoot the playing of tapes, by Hearst, Cinque, and other members, essentially taking the SLA’s self-description on faith, and so, unable to see it as the dysfunctional cult that it was. (The FBI used CIA helicopters to search for the SLA, even as the group was camped out in an apartment just blocks from the FBI offices: “The FBI looked like a bunch of idiots,” says Stone, who “couldn’t find this little band of kids.”)
The SLA soon came up with their own PR strategy, an effort to win over the public who watched tv, beginning with the food giveaway, designed to “make up for Foster killing.” As Stone describes the footage of the giveaway, “It almost comes off as a racist episode,” as the “people look like damn fools fighting over a turkey” and Ronald Reagan (then governor of California), was overheard saying he “wished the recipients would die of botulism.” Such scandalous sidebar stories were everywhere surrounding the SLA main stage, as reporters were fed by the Hearsts (“We got barbeque sauce, wine, liquor”) and took to joking around during their down hours (revealed in newly discovered footage here that looks like a college party more than any sort of reporters’ assembly).
As the SLA started to believe their own hype and rhetoric, asserts Stone in the commentary track, they became a sort of proto-reality tv program. The film makes dramatic use of photos (the camera tracks slowly over them) along with moving footage. “I think this is my favorite scene in the film,” he says of the Hibernia Bank robbery footage. “Kind of like the Zapruder film,” he says, it’s one of those iconographic scenes that’s really indelible. It almost, in a strange way, kind of sums up the whole 1970s.” Another choice for such summation, however, may be the shootout between L.A. SWAT and the SLA, “broadcast all over the country in primetime,” such that the line between fantasy and reality blurred, with the cops making no effort to spare lives.
Guerrilla raises important questions about identity and identification, the ways that Hearst’s enigma represents these questions. As she was perceived as a terrorist during her trial (and badly served by F. Lee Bailey’s defense strategy), the documentary includes a happy Hearst, smiling for reporters when she was released from prison, her sentence commuted by President Carter after 22 months, her image “rehabilitated” by a PR campaign to paint her as a “terrorist victim.”
The film includes footage from the sentencing hearing for the SLA members convicted of shooting and killing Myrna Opsahl during the Hibernia Bank caper, a sobering scene that indicates the costs of violence and terrorism (as the murderers and Opsahl’s family members cry in court). And yet it closes with footage of Hearst on a talk show, an event that “says more about us than it does about her,” as Stone sees it. Introduced as a “former terrorist,” she was, as he says, “just an ordinary young woman who got kidnapped and joined a cult.” The framing of her celebrity here is wholly absurd, demonstrating “how modern terrorism has been turned into a form of entertainment.” And this is surely the most disturbing fallout from the Hearst kidnapping and media frenzy—that such entertainment is now the norm.