In 1974, a group of young socialist-bent radicals, known as the Symbionese Liberation Army, kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst from her Berkeley college campus. Over the next 19 months, Hearst underwent a mysterious transformation from terrified kidnap victim to SLA member. She then committed a variety of crimes on behalf of the group, which were witnessed by an astonished nation. “Guerrilla” is filmmaker Robert Stone’s absorbing documentary on the events surrounding this point in history, and the aftermath of Hearst’s kidnapping on the SLA.
With access to two former SLA members, Russ Little and Michael Bortin, Stone is able to generate a vivid portrait of just how the SLA came to be during the smoldering ashes of the Vietnam War, and what prompted them to kidnap Hearst. Using the abduction as an introduction, Stone investigates the 19 months where Hearst was in limbo, and the SLA was fully in control, spouting their increasingly delusional worldviews to the press. While the Hearst abduction has become a fixture of popular history, “Guerrilla” brilliantly captures the dark, long forgotten aftertaste of the event, where the SLA held the upper hand in negotiating terms for Hearst’s safety, including a remarkable event where father Randolph Hearst hastily arranged impromptu food drives for the poor of California, one of which erupted into a full scale riot. “Guerrilla” draws gradually from the time period, listening closely as Hearst’s taped messages to her parents slowly became more mystifyingly antagonistic and accusatory. The film also discusses the possible appearance of the “Stockholm syndrome” as a reason for Hearst’s eventual actions of violent bank robbery and lunatic radicalism, though the film doesn’t seem fully convinced by that explanation.
What “Guerrilla” excels at is capturing a hot potato era in which young radicals took up arms to fend off alleged injustices in the name of “the people,” often mistakenly revealing their true motivations in subsequent misuses of power, both sexual and political. A great companion piece to Bill Siegel’s “The Weather Underground,” “Guerrilla” might have not much fat outside of the Hearst saga, but it demonstrates proficiency in detailing this wild tale, supported by a wealth of incredible and revolutionary news footage captured right at the time the media was becoming “The Media.”
Frustratingly, the truth behind Hearst’s time inside the SLA’s walls was never revealed outside of wild conjecture and media manipulation. Stone doesn’t have the answers, nor does he allow much time to grasp the fallout after Hearst was arrested for her crimes in 1975. Instead, the simple juxtaposition of captured SLA members being sentenced to hard jail time while Hearst glams it up on a cushy talk show is just the right note to hit when encompassing this stunningly bizarre, stranger-than-fiction tale of the stumbling of a revolution and the semi-automatic transformation of a princess.Rating: A-