Robert Stone's documentary Guerrilla: The Taking Of Patty Hearst deals more with the cultural chaos surrounding the 1974 Hearst kidnapping than with the event itself, so Stone has the right to be a little stylistically aggressive. But did he have to be so overbearing? His restless editing and apparent fear of showing a static human face for more than a few seconds borders on the ridiculous, especially early on, when he illustrates an interviewee's casual mention of astronauts with NASA file footage. When he's not matching seemingly every spoken word to an image, Stone cuts to black screens with printed factoids about the Hearst case, and works in montages of Vietnam-era social unrest set to militant hard rock. He gets the effect he's looking fora kind of media barrage to match the mood of the times he's documentingbut it comes out gracelessly.
Guerrilla settles down once Stone arrives at the moment when the anti-government Symbionese Liberation Army abducts Hearst and demands that her family and its media empire provide food for the poor in exchange for her release. The kidnapping received nearly round-the-clock coverage in 1974, and the network news, unsure how to handle a gang of terrorist hippies, made the SLA into counterculture superstars by broadcasting their every complaint about capitalist pigs and imperialist warmongers. The media hit paydirt with Hearst's caught-on-tape participation in a bank robbery, which was re-run repeatedly to a captivated nation. Stone shows the heist in its entirety, without sound, in a scene of rare subtlety.
Stone is more interested in the SLA than in Hearst, so he doesn't have much to say about who she was or why she made the transition from prisoner to member. Instead, he interviews as many surviving SLA-ers as he can get, and lets them speak freely about their gradual political awakening, sparked by frequent screenings of movies like Che and State Of Siege. The group came together over thoughts and jumped into violent action abruptly, without much deliberation. Only after committing their crimes did they try to put a good face on them by making speeches about social justicea tactic that Stone illustrates snarkily by showing clips from the Disney version of Robin Hood.
As for how everything went so wrong, the now-much-calmer ex-SLA members can only explain their mindset then: They felt demoralized by an establishment that had already branded them as the enemy by re-electing Richard Nixon. For all its distracting style, Guerrilla still holds up as social history, primarily because its description of seething frustration in a divided America has become spookily relevant.