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Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (2004)

Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 89 minutes

US Certificate: Unrated UK Certificate: 12a

California, 1973. From the embers of youthful sixties revolution there emerges a group of leftist students and political activists committed to defending the rights of African-Americans and the working class through the violent overthrow of “the fascist state of America”. If calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army was not confusing enough, their first significant action was the assassination of Marcus Foster, Oakland's first black Superintendent of Schools – an act which immediately alienated them from many of their potential supporters. After two members were arrested, the SLA retaliated by kidnapping media magnate Randolph Hearst's daughter Patricia. Insisting that the ransom negotiations be conducted in the full spotlight of the media, the group pulled off its greatest publicity coup – a tape recording of Patricia criticising her own father, followed by a recorded announcement that she had converted to the cause of her abductors and was changing her name to Tania, and then images of this self-styled “urban guerrilla” brandishing an automatic weapon during a bank robbery. The humiliated police and FBI hit back hard, and as the world watched, the values of the SLA imploded.

The strange tale of the SLA easily lends itself to romanticisation. One of the group's founders (Russ Little) admits to drawing inspiration from Errol Flynn in 'The Adventures of Robin Hood', another member (Mike Bortin) describes their exploits as “like Bonnie and Clyde” and “the ultimate David and Goliath” – while all members adopted exotic noms de guerre (Cinqué, Osceola, Fahizan etc.), and deployed all the rhetoric of a vast underground militia. Most potent of all was that image of the gun-toting Patty, as instantly iconic as Ché in revolutionary beret, and a rallying symbol for a generation still rebelling against its patrician elders. The reality, of course, was somewhat different – the SLA was a tiny, bumbling collective of (mostly) middle-class intellectuals who were robbing banks (and murdering people) as much in the end for financial gain as for their increasingly muddled ideology. Robert Stone's 'Guerrilla…', painstakingly compiled from incredible archival footage (some never before seen) and new interviews with those who were closest to the events (journalists, FBI agents, and even two former SLA members, one of whom has subsequently returned to prison), is an engrossing documentary account of one of the more bizarre chapters in recent American history – but perhaps Stone deserves the greatest praise for steadfastly refusing to idealise the SLA and their actions. Where the SLA came to believe its own hype, and the authorities and the press played their part in elevating the group's significance, Stone keeps a cool distance from such complicit myth-making.

In fact the film performs a delicate balancing act, never justifying, let alone glorifying, the violent activities of the home-grown terrorists, but still exposing with honesty the social ills and political authoritarianism against which the SLA was reacting. And at a time when the US is once again at war with a shadowy terrorist organisation, once again content to curtail the legal rights of apprehended suspects, and once again willing to storm in with guns blazing, as the supine media show more interest in spectacular live coverage than close contextual analysis, 'Guerrilla…' offers timely lessons in history for us all.

It's Got: A story you could not make up, that would be hysterically funny were it not for the all too real bodycount.

It Needs: For its lessons to be learned (apparently they have not been).


History may love a winner, but these murderously bumbling also-rans of the seventies offer timely lessons for us all.