The image of Patty Hearst, granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph, clutching a gun and posing in front of the Symbionese Liberation Army’s flag in full paramilitary gear is now iconic – a symbol of radical ’70s activism and a jolting reminder of a time when America briefly and violently chewed its own tail in the face of the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon and failed ’60s idealism. Robert Stone’s solid, slick documentary wastes little time before plunging into a detailed account of Hearst’s kidnapping and ultimate collaboration with the SLA, employing a sober mix of first-person reminiscence, archive news footage and, most dramatically, taped recordings of the SLA’s wild demands – to which Hearst’s father briefly capitulated by plunging $2 million into an ill-conceived food aid programme for America’s poor. It’s an intriguing record of a bizarre blip in America’s history. ‘Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people,’ drones a sleepy-sounding Hearst on one of her kidnappers’ tapes, offering a now comic soundbite that is employed several times in the film. Stone’s approach is to shy away from intense scrutiny and let events speak for themselves; it’s informed nostalgia over critical history. Little time is spent on the context of the SLA’s activities and Stone avoids questioning why, exactly, Hearst enjoyed such a slight prison term and eventually had her sentence commuted by Jimmy Carter. It’s a minor quibble though. This is an illuminating and smart film that captures an America emerging from the innocence of the ’60s, straddling the divide between Kennedy and Reagan and about to plunge headfirst into a total media age.
Friday June 3 2005