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Smithsonian Channel's New Documentary Raises the Question: What Can We Learn from Patty Hearst?

TV Features The Lost Tapes: Patty Hearst
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Smithsonian Channel's New Documentary Raises the Question: What Can We Learn from Patty Hearst?

Sometimes notorious people or stories, once part of the popular culture’s lingua franca, start to fall into legend or obscurity. One of the jobs of documentary filmmaking can be resurrecting them, perhaps at a remove of decades, to try and present a high-level—or deep-dive—view of something that might have been overlooked, forgotten, or not understood at the time. Sometimes they do a great job of it and sometimes they don’t. It’s common for found-footage-based docs to simply recreate the chaos, trying to cram too many disparate strands of information into a compact space and losing sight of the big picture. Let’s be clear right away that The Lost Tapes: Patty Hearst doesn’t suffer from that problem. It’s one of the most cogent TV documentaries of its type to come out in the last couple of years. If anything, this one doesn’t quite say enough.

In February 1974, Patricia Hearst, granddaughter of legendary newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped from her Berkeley home by a group of revolutionaries who called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was held by them for over a year. Or she developed a raging case of Stockholm Syndrome and joined the SLA—that’s still not entirely clear. It’s certainly what she said in recorded messages the SLA sent to her distraught parents, often via Berkeley’s KPFA radio station, and she was certainly sentenced on felony counts of armed robbery and assault for her part in a robbery at San Francisco’s Hibernia Bank. She was shortly thereafter released on bail and back with the affluent family she’d called “pigs” on those tapes. Her SLA identity (they’d renamed her “Tania”) seemed to evaporate, leaving behind a person who’d been drugged and brainwashed and was slowly reclaiming her sanity. Hearst did spend some time in prison, but her sentence was commuted by Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton issued her a pardon.

Patty Hearst was a famous heiress, and this strange story captured the nation’s attention. But her decision (or coerced “decision”) to join her captors in attempted violent revolution was always ambiguous, despite numerous messages to her parents and the world at large in what seemed to be Patty’s own words. She’d been awakened, she said, after being locked in a closet for two months, to the plight of oppressed and poor people everywhere and could no longer claim her life of privilege: She would stay and she would fight. Her screeds against her parents and the FBI became more scathing as the months went on. The SLA demanded that Randolph Hearst distribute food to “every hungry person” in California and the guy actually freaking tried to do it, pouring several million dollars of his personal fortune into food distribution centers. Oakland, for example, saw the food trucks coming and did what it sometimes does best: erupted in riots. Patty sent out a message complaining that she’d heard the food wasn’t nice enough. SLA demands increased. Hearst hit a breaking point and put the case in the hands of the FBI. Then there was the iconic picture of Patty Hearst holding hostages at gunpoint in a San Francisco Hibernia Bank branch. The SLA got away with about $10,000. Footage might or might not indicate that another SLA member was actually holding Hearst at gunpoint at the same time.

The documentary footage is cogent, well-assembled and interesting, and it shows a restrained respect for timeline and clarity. Perhaps to a fault, because it’s missing a ton of context that might give viewers an understanding of why this story is still actually very, very important. The SLA probably don’t seem like much from this footage—in fact, they rather put me in mind of the “Snatchers” from the Harry Potter books: doofuses who were venal and frequently violent but ultimately pretty thin on ideology, if on point with the choosing of cool guerilla nicknames. But these people were dangerous. They killed, they robbed banks, they took hostages, including Patty Hearst, whether or not she did ultimately join them (and the documentary isn’t clear on that). The SLA emerged from a moment of boiling racial tension, disgust with corporate wealth and distrust of the government and the media. I dunno: Doesn’t that sound… familiar? Shouldn’t we be learning as much as we can about them?

Hearst herself was an interesting subject. Was she really acting on her own free will? It’s not clear. And the documentary gives us next to nothing on the SLA itself: Its manifesto is not characterized besides “free the oppressed / liberate The People,” and almost no information is given about its members and how they came together or what their planned endgame was specifically (if they had one in mind). Given the conditions on the ground currently, doesn’t it kind of seem like maybe we should be paying a little more attention to vigilantes and a little less to celebrities?

I’ve seen a lot of commemorative documentaries in the last year or two, wide ranging in their subject matter and often emerging from multiple outlets at once to mark an anniversary. I think one of the most common threads among them is “lots and lots of data, so-so filmmaking.” This one’s the opposite. It’s sleek and easy to follow, but it won’t give you a ton to go on if you want to understand what really happened to Patty Hearst, or (in my opinion more importantly) what to expect when the have/have-not gap becomes cavernous, racial violence escalates, and obese, top-heavy corporate powers are clearly running the show. Because that, my friends, is something to understand. I say watch this documentary. And don’t stop there.

The Lost Tapes: Patty Hearst re-airs tonight at 8 p.m. on The Smithsonian Channel.



Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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