- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2004

“Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst,” exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema, begins in pointillist proximity to a grainy image. As the camera withdraws to a discernible vantage point, it reveals a vintage news photo of Donald DeFreeze.

At this chronological distance, he might be confused with the ice-making Frozone in “The Incredibles.” In 1974, he achieved fleeting infamy as an ex-con and self-styled “general and field marshal” of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a small group of left-wing terrorists whose initial outrages — the murder of school superintendent Marcus Foster in Oakland, Calif., and the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst in Berkeley — were confined to the Bay Area.

Although it’s not one of the sidelights that seems to interest the documentary time-traveler Robert Stone (not to be confused with the famous novelist), DeFreeze, who adopted the revolutionary nickname “Cinque,” was also the group’s token black leader.

The SLA made a point of expressing solidarity with “oppressed minorities” in its propaganda communiques, which also incorporated the recurrent and hyperbolic oath “Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people,” yet SLA outreach never seemed to yield a wave of black recruits.

The typical SLA gunslinger was white and upper-middle-class. The first victim, Mr. Foster, was black. Ultimately, the group’s hideout in Southern California was revealed by inhospitable and, predominantly, black neighbors, triggering a live-TV shootout that left five SLA “soldiers” charred to the bone. This showdown also made the Los Angeles Police Department’s Special Weapons and Tactics unit famous.

A friend who worked in the Oakland District Attorney’s Office at the time once told me that the gang seemed to attract young people with trust funds to a remarkable degree. So much so that the thought of outlawing such bequests began to look like a kindness to future generations of Americans.

“Taking” seems a rather tame euphemism for an abduction at gunpoint that involved brutalizing and brainwashing the victim, the daughter of San Francisco Examiner Publisher Randolph Hearst (and granddaughter of the late newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst). Presumably a trust-fund beneficiary herself, Miss Hearst was targeted as a hostage after two SLA members, Russ Little and Joe Remiro, were arrested in Mr. Foster’s killing.

The movie spends considerable time reminiscing with Mr. Little and another SLA survivor, Michael Bortin, whose lack of candor and perspective is mocked to some extent by events that Mr. Stone had to incorporate as an epilogue.

Perhaps suspicious to a fault, I got the impression that Mr. Stone would prefer to give the benefit of the doubt to SLA nostalgics. No one in the Hearst family seems to have agreed to comment for his survey. Miss Hearst appears only in vintage documentation.

There are few firsthand accounts from law enforcement personnel and reporters, although Tim Findley of the San Francisco Chronicle looms large as the most conspicuous voice of sanity in retrospect.

The filmmakers are certainly on to something when asserting that the Hearst case set a pattern for hand-wringing “America held hostage” coverage of terrorist threats and crimes. The point ought to be reinforced by illustrations of subsequent examples, from the Iranian crisis in 1979 through al Qaeda in the present.

A bemused and revealing dramatic feature of 1988, Paul Schrader’s “Patty Hearst,” caught the despotic squalor of the SLA far more effectively than “Guerrilla” — and had the advantage of dealing with the overwhelmed victim and her kidnappers at close quarters. The filmmakers discovered that they couldn’t duplicate the SLA argot, evidently an earlier draft of “gangsta” idiom, because it sounded too funny when spoken.

Mr. Stone doesn’t add to this linguistic lore, but he does include numerous audio-tape replays of SLA members waxing smug and doctrinaire. Obviously, they did a sinister number on their own brains before seizing the opportunity to tamper with Miss Hearst’s.

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