Movie Review by Jonathan Harvey
Starring: Michael Bortin, Tim Findley, Dr Marcus Foster, Dan Grove, Bill Harris
Director: Robert Stone
With threats of terrorist acts still pervading the news, it’s timely to be reminded of the remarkable story of Patty Hearst’s abduction by the Simbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in the 1970s, and Robert Stone’s new documentary offers a fascinating take on it.
An interesting, and well-judged, choice by Stone is to steer away from the speculation over rich heiress (and granddaughter of William Randolph) Hearst’s true motives for her actions while with the SLA. Instead he plants the focus firmly on the media circus which surrounded the kidnapping, so successfully whipped up by the self-styled terrorists that they seem to lose their way about how to deal with it. One of the most stunning aspects of the film is the extent and revealing nature of the archive footage that Stone’s managed to dig up, from the news conferences held by Patty’s distraught father to a security recording of Patty helping conduct a robbery. Another strong point is the decision not to lace the film with a voiceover, but to allow the story to be told primarily by two former members of the SLA themselves (Mike Bortin and Russ Little).
Not only is it enrapturing to watch this iconic tale of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ in action, but it’s also a salutary lesson in how the press can contribute to the sense of cult that can surround terrorists, in this case the SLA. It also shows the descent of a group of young radical idealists towards an increasingly unprincipled and desperate existence, with five of the group dying in a climactic siege and gunfight which helped expose the ineptitude of the FBI and police handling of the case. You can’t help wondering not just what were the terrorists thinking, but how they got away with it for so long.
The film has a powerful double ending which contrasts the decision of four former SLA members, including Bortin himself, to admit their role in the unintended murder of a bank worker and be sentenced to prison terms, with Hearst’s own rehabilitation into society and new role as c-list chat show guest. It rounds off an impressive retelling of a truly bizarre story.