`Guerrilla' is a riveting analysis of SLA

Movie Review

December 31, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The symbol of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a last-gasp organization of left-wing terrorist revolt, was a multibodied snake - a hydra with multiple torsos instead of heads. How appropriate that symbol seems in Guerrilla, a solid, engrossing documentary about this ragtag band's rise and fall. It depicts each of the snake's coils twitching to life, expiring and then moving reflexively, in awful death throes, as the SLA's actions play out like parodies of a once-potent radical protest movement.

Arriving on the national scene in the early '70s, when the counterculture was on the wane, the Berkeley- and San Francisco-based group decided to spring a black convict from a California prison according to the theory that all African-American prisoners were political prisoners. Under the guise of dealing killer blows to the Man and his System, it then undertook a series of insane operations, including the assassination of the first black Oakland school superintendent and the wounding of his assistant.

The most famous of the SLA's forays into guerrilladom, the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, is the film's center. It provides a horrifying portrait of a family under stress and a social system and government thrown into chaos. Without firm strategies to deal with home-grown terrorism, authorities fail to provide the Hearsts with decisive guidance. As the media disseminate the SLA's apparently humanitarian demands, the family agrees to fund a $2 million food giveaway.

The most appalling result: Whether to assuage the SLA or to vent their own frustration at caring for all the poor with inadequate funds, well-meaning intermediaries like the now-renowned Rev. Cecil Williams of San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church praise the SLA's ends-justify-the-means audacity. But the food program splinters, and doesn't prove enough to satisfy the SLA or guarantee Patty's return - if anything could. In fact, it turns out that Patty has renamed herself Tania and joined the SLA's "revolution."

The film's one weakness is its unwillingness to explore the coercion or brainwashing of Patty beyond a brief description of "the Stockholm syndrome," in which victims under duress identify with their jailers. Did months of captivity and brainwashing - and the "love" of group leader Willy "Cujo" Wolfe - result in her swallowing the group's loathing for "fascist," "bourgeois" America and her family? Did it turn her into a provocateur and bank robber - a Che-beret Bonnie to Wolfe's sloganeering Clyde? You won't find too many clues here. But in almost every other way, the film is a lucid, riveting analysis of a watershed moment in America's social-cultural history.

Students traumatized by the Vietnam draft and convinced that their "Greatest Generation" parents had become Nazis because of the war in Southeast Asia had to stop for a reality check - especially after their latest heroes in the SLA began playing self-destructive "gotcha" games with law enforcement instead of expanding their demands to help the poor. The media, decades before O.J. Simpson, found themselves helplessly riding waves of violent breaking news, without pause for analysis or displays of sympathy to victims or their survivors.

With the help of seasoned San Francisco Chronicle reporter Tim Findley, the film's director, Robert Stone, casts light on such side issues as the differences in local law enforcement - when the San Francisco police say, "Give up," Findley notes, perps might feel they still have a few minutes to decide. That's not the case with the Los Angeles police. Despite the film's exposure of the SLA as vicious poseurs, you may still be appalled at the LAPD's efficient massacre of most of the gang's holed-up members in South L.A. Of course, the sorrow you feel at the SLA's murder of a bank employee is far worse.

Guerrilla, among other things, offers a sobering case study of the misuse of popular culture: great political and fantasy-adventure films inspired its membership. A drawback to seeing Guerrilla is that you might never again be able to look at Costa-Gavras' State of Siege with undivided respect or Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood with undiluted pleasure.

Guerrilla provides one huge compensation: the getting of historical wisdom.

SUN SCORE 3 1/2 stars (***1/2)

Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst

A documentary by Robert Stone

Released by Magnolia

Time 89 minutes

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