The American Experience: Season 17, Episode 11

Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (30 May 2005)

TV Episode  -   -  Documentary | History
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Ratings: 7.3/10 from 411 users   Metascore: 75/100
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A documentary on the curious American domestic terrorist group, infamous for the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst.


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Title: Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (30 May 2005)

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Episode credited cast:
Michael Bortin ...
Timothy Findley ...
Dan Grove ...
Ludlow Kramer ...
John Lester ...
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Marcus Foster ...
Himself (archive footage)
Catherine Hearst ...
Herself (archive footage)
Herself (archive footage)
Randolph Hearst ...
Himself (archive footage)
Richard Neill ...
Himself (archive footage)
Howard Shack ...
Evelle Younger ...
Himself (archive footage)


In 1974, a teenage newspaper heiress and Berkeley undergrad was kidnapped at gunpoint from her apartment, setting off one of the most bizarre episodes in recent history. The kidnappers, completely off the map before Patty Hearst disappeared into the San Francisco night, were a small band of young, ferociously militant political radicals, dedicated to the rights of prisoners and the working class. They called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army. Over the course of about three years they robbed banks, senselessly killed two innocent people, instigated a firefight after attempting to shoplift a pair of socks, and, most famously, converted their hostage and victim. They also achieved an undeniably visionary manipulation of the media, inciting perhaps the first modern media frenzy. Presenting resonating questions about the role of the media in America--mouthpiece? Messenger? Truth seeker? --The ethical dilemmas posed by new technologies, and the proximity of madness to political ... Written by Sujit R. Varma

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Release Date:

30 May 2005 (USA)  »

Box Office

Opening Weekend:

$22,444 (USA) (26 November 2004)


$101,439 (USA) (11 February 2005)

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Many, many missed opportunities here...
20 August 2006 | by (Chapel Hill, NC, USA) – See all my reviews

Sorry to say, this film suffers in comparison with the extraordinary WEATHER UNDERGROUND, which managed to become an unexpected commercial success, largely on the strength of meticulous film-making which not only recounted the history, but also captured context and diverse commentary on the events, times and people central to its' story. It was a film that - in many ways - raised the bar on recent-historical documentary film-making.

Alas, GUERRILLA is a far more pedestrian affair, mostly a compendium of archival footage (much of which is fascinating), with precious little digging into context - the fragmentation of the American left during the early 70s, the rise of underground radicalism (Weathermen, PLO, IRA, Red Brigade, et. al.), the post-60s decline of many major American cities (and the rising despair that ultimately fueled the crack wars of the 80s/90s and the riots that hit Miami and Los Angeles). Each of these elements are of some relevance to what's being presented in this documentary - the SLA were weirder and wiggier than most, mixing their Mao and inner-city blues with a big dose of dadaist strangeness, but they didn't just materialize out of the ether, and - in keeping the focus too tightly on the events and the group, this doc plays the history out as some ultra-violent theatre-of-the-absurd, in real life; a sort-of weird-sploitative pigs-vs-the-people melodrama.

This does a great disservice to history - through this film, Patti Hearst remains an enigma, with a great many class issues, psychological issues (post-traumatic stress, or the Stockholm syndrome) barely touched upon. The other surviving members of the SLA get plenty of screen time (unlike Hearst, who I assume didn't want to be involved), but the many interviews presented don't really seem to dig into anything deeper than who-did-what.

GUERRILLA isn't a total failure by a long shot; anyone with any memory of the 70s knows how weird the story seemed to be, and the recounting of it seen here is definitely captivating; the strangeness, chaos and confusion of the era doesn't feel very distant at all. But I also recall something else: back in the late 80s, the rock band Camper Van Beethoven recorded a snappy, satirical homage to Patty Hearst, entitled "Tania." In three-and-a-half minutes, I think they might have outdone this 90-minute documentary. Oh well.

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