Friday, December 02, 2016
Director: Paul Schrader
Writers: Patricia Hearst, Alvin Moscow, Nicholas Kazan
Photography: Bojan Bazelli
Music: Scott Johnson
Editor: Michael R. Miller
Cast: Natasha Richardson, Ving Rhames, William Forsythe, Frances Fisher, Jodi Long, Peter Kowanko, Tom O'Rourke, Gerald Gordon
The Patty Hearst story is always going to be interesting, like the Jonbenet Ramsey murder, JFK assassination, and Lizzie Borden crimes, because of a continuing sense we still don't even know exactly what happened—that it might be impossible to know, it's so slathered over now with distortions of celebrity and passing time. The crusading prosecutor in director and cowriter Paul Schrader's formally fictional treatment of Patty Hearst puts it this way: "America wants to know. Did she or didn't she? Was she or wasn't she?" The scene is a conference between lawyers, late in the movie, after the fugitive Patty Hearst has been run to ground with the remaining members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a year and a half after the kidnapping.
F. Lee Bailey and his team, representing Hearst, cannot believe prosecutors are thinking of taking the case to trial, arguing it would be an open-and-shut case of coercion in a military setting. After Bailey realizes they are serious he makes the speech that defines the problem of Patty Hearst: "How are you gonna get a fair jury? In the '60s, every parent sent their nice normal kid off to college, and bingo! It was like the kid got kidnapped by the counterculture. Turned into a commie and said screw you to society and his parents. Lived in a commune and had free sex with Negroes and homosexuals. They think Patty did the same thing." To which the crusading prosecutor (Tom O'Rourke) responds: "Didn't she?"
By the time this movie came out in 1988, Patty Hearst had been found guilty by a jury of her peers, seen her sentenced commuted by Jimmy Carter after two years in prison, and written a memoir, Every Secret Thing, the basis for this movie. All of it, for better or worse, is largely by way of PR rehabilitation and score-settling, and this movie was part of a continuing effort. Still ahead were feature film roles in John Waters movies, a full presidential pardon from Bill Clinton, fancy dog breeding, charity fundraising, and, just this year, a book by Jeffrey Toobin that stands somewhat tentatively with the prosecutor, echoing his question: "Didn't she?"
But first things first. This movie, before it's anything else, is an important piece of the rehabilitation. It passionately believes its version, though it is also ambiguous in key places. Wandering into it originally on a lark—like America, I thought Patty Hearst was ancient news in 1988—I came out of it again in a daze. The project is one of those happy combinations of talent and story. Hearst's original 1981 memoir is itself a classic American book, with roots in slave narratives and true-crime pamphlets from the 19th century, and a distinctive voice. For Natasha Richardson, who plays her, it may be her best performance. It's uneven and erratic, but that fits the tone of Patty Hearst and her life. Richardson's worst overacting, as when she gives her occupation to her jailers as "urban guerrilla," also delivers some of the most chilling, enlightening, and memorable moments in a movie full of them.
I think it's Paul Schrader's movie in the end, and one of his best. Schrader wrote the screenplays for two of Martin Scorsese's most renowned movies, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. As a director on his own, in movies such as Hardcore, Cat People, and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, his themes are established as individual obsession thwarted by societal pressures, represented most vividly by imprisonment. Schrader has never been shy about naming Robert Bresson's Pickpocket as the greatest movie ever made and a huge influence on him. More than one of his movies show main characters in prison at the end.
So Patty Hearst—much like that other Schrader project, Taxi Driver, with its prolific oil-and-water mixtures of talent—brings a tremendous amount of bristling energy to the question at hand. Based on Hearst's memoir, it has the answers for us, which arguably became encapsulated in the psychological condition known as "Stockholm syndrome," named after a crime that happened in Sweden in 1973. The best part of this movie indeed is the first hour, which dramatizes that, moving with little prelude into her kidnapping on February 4, 1974, and showing her conditions and how she viewed her situation as days became weeks locked at all times into an unlighted closet, still wearing only the bathrobe she was taken in.
The SLA is presented as what they likely were, a cultic group on the Manson model, a pathetic band of mostly white women in their 30s led by the only African-American among them, Donald DeFreeze (Ving Rhames, also in one of his best roles and performances ever), who called himself "General Field Marshal Cinque." They are caricatured practically to a fault, spouting Sarah Palin word salad versions of Communist revolutionary rhetoric and comically wishing they were black. Hearst is introduced to the buffoonery only gradually, in strikingly visual scenes, first as muffled voices heard beyond the closet, then with shots from below of a door opening and silhouettes. Then it's time for education, one of them leaning in to lecture her, or hector her, or mock her. She decides the way to get out of that closet is by making them believe she wants to join them—they are also actively recruiting her. They want it to happen. Their general ineptitude, in fact, has led to little return for the kidnapping beyond sensational notoriety, which seems to be enough for them, though they know they are hunted.
Their slogan, "Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people," pretty much makes the point, yet, as in horror movies, the stakes could not be higher in many ways. Patty Hearst is a complex character, but her motivations are always clear, even at those points when others think she could have escaped. We want to know who she is, and this version puts to rest many of the nagging questions. This is one movie that works well within its "based on true events" confines, as it is truly a strange and twisted tale, from studying one night with her fiancée as an undergraduate at Berkeley, to robbing banks as an urban guerrilla revolutionary, beloved of the people.
Toobin's book, published earlier this year, American Heiress (which I know only from reviews), seems to take the position that many people are in prison for crimes they committed under bad influences too, and thus Hearst is a privileged rich white person getting away with crimes other don't. That might be fair enough. Certainly the John Waters work and other bits and pieces of her public career suggest a certain level of cynicism. As it happens, however, that cynicism is precisely spelled out and approximately explained here in the final scene of the movie. Who Patty Hearst is and what she's about—I don't think it could be more clear. And it's a pretty good answer.