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Patty Hearst (1988) – Review by Pauline Kael

A lean, impressive piece of work. Nicholas Kazan’s script, which is based on Patty Hearst’s own ac­count, Every Secret Thing, comes across as bilge-free.
Patty Hearst (1988)

by Pauline Kael

Paul Schrader lacks a basic instinct for moviemaking: he doesn’t reach an audience’s emotions. He doesn’t make you feel empathy with his characters, and he’s short on humor. By temperament, he cools out hot projects. These limita­tions make it unlikely that his Patty Hearst will appeal to a large audience. But on its own terms—as a stylized movie of ideas—this is a lean, impressive piece of work. Nicholas Kazan’s script, which is based on Patty Hearst’s own ac­count, Every Secret Thing, comes across as bilge-free. The film is a distanced presentation of the kidnapping of the nineteen-year-old heiress, in February, 1974, by an eight-member terrorist group that called itself the Symbionese Liberation Army, and of the fifty-seven days she spent blind­folded, in a closet, being alternately lambasted as a bour­geois parasite and raped, and of her subsequent participation in S.L.A. holdups as Tania, the terror she developed of the F.B.I., and her arrest, trial, and conviction. The whole series of events is like a nightmare that’s all of a piece—a kid’s nightmare that no one’s on your side. And it answers the question that people asked before, during, and after the trial: Did she become part of the S.L.A. willingly, out of convic­tion, or was she simply trying to save her life? The movie shows you that, in the state she was in, there was no differ­ence.

The S.L.A. punished Patty Hearst for being a representa­tive of the rich; so did the jury. The movie errs, I think, in its quick, cursory glimpses of her early life: it doesn’t treat her as an individual, either. Her prettiness and her bland manner are used against her, to suggest that she’s a nothing, when they could be used as an indication that she was trained to hide her emotions under a polite mask—that her blandness is a form of privacy. And since we’re not taken inside her character at the beginning, the movie is flat for a long time. There’s some kind of inhuman chic in treating a victimized young girl as if she had no personality, no soul. But, offensive as it is, this attitude ties in with the film’s “objective” manner. (The format suggests a staged docu­mentary: we don’t find out any more about the S.L.A. members than Patty does.) And since the movie sticks to a step-by-step factual view of what happens to her, it does her justice—cold justice though it is. When her capture by the S.L.A. is followed by her capture by the police, everything you’ve seen starts to add up, and suddenly the film is over­whelming.

Natasha Richardson, the twenty-five-year-old actress who plays Patty, has been handed a big unwritten role. She feels her way into it, and she fills it by having Patty react meekly yet almost furtively to her indoctrination and to the ex­changes among the terrorists. Patty’s reticence is much more than a veneer: it’s how she deals with the terrorists, whose next moves she can’t predict. (She retreats to being a hidden observer; you feel her reminding herself to look eager to please.) Richardson lets us see only a flicker of Patty’s feel­ings toward the men she’s forced to have sex with. (It’s not until the trial, when she’s specifically asked how she felt about one of them, that she lashes out with “I hated him.”)

In movies, we are always primed to cheer those who fight back, even when we know that realistically they couldn’t. Here’s a passive victim—a girl who is raped in mind and body, and no longer knows when it started. (In memory flashes, she sees herself as having been blindfolded when she still lived at home with her family.) The film’s Patty has a marvellous confused plaintiveness. Nine weeks after the terrorists bang her on the head and throw her in the trunk of a car, she takes part in a bank holdup, and only a few weeks later (in May) the police surround the S.L.A.’s Southern California bungalow hideout and, after an ex­change of thousands of rounds of ammunition, the house goes up in flames and the six S.L.A. people who were there are incinerated. Patty, who’s away in a motel with the other two S.L.A. members, Bill and Emily Harris, watches the shootout and the fire on TV. The commentators and the police assume she was inside, and she knows that if she had been she would have burned to death, too. She stares at the TV and says wonderingly, “They didn’t even try to take us alive.” What the terrorists have been telling her—that now that she’s joined up, the police are out to kill her—sinks in; it traumatizes her, and she cowers in fear in the motel john. “They think I’m dead,” she says. “I am dead.” Sixteen months later, in September, 1975, she is arrested and put on trial; when she’s asked why she didn’t run away from the S.L.A. and she replies “Where would I go?” we feel how alone and paralyzed she was. She buried Patty Hearst out of fear, and Tania didn’t have anybody. You can hear that bur­ied child in Richardson’s voice—thin and girlish here, like Patty Hearst’s. (At one point, though, Richardson hits a con­tralto tone that evokes her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, whom she often evokes visually.)

Richardson always has something in reserve—you keep waiting for what she may show you next. Hiding out with the Harrises in rural Pennsylvania, she’s impressed by the guts that the fugitive radical Wendy (Jodi Long) shows in standing up to the foolish, irrational Bill Harris (William For­sythe). Wendy is spirited, and Patty draws some strength from talking with her. But when she’s in police hands she’s blocked again: her every attempt to be truthful gets her in worse trouble. At the trial, she grasps how hopeless her case is, and, for the first time, she shows a trace of bitterness. When she’s in the Federal Correctional Institute talking to her father, we see her in full face, and she looks luminously beautiful. Her words are perhaps too explicit: she says she has finally figured out what her crime was—“I lived.” Her face transcends the statement.

And the film, I think, transcends its flaws. The idea of keeping us blindfolded, along with the dazed Patty, is some­what deadening: keeping us in the dark with her is too conceptual a notion, and the effect is a little too art-conscious. Yet the hypnotic formality of the film’s conception holds it all together. Schrader and Kazan are willing to sacrifice im­mediate pleasure for the full effect. And they show a dry wit here: Forsythe’s performance as the bespectacled white middle-class Bill Harris who keeps trying to become a black revolutionary leader is a comedy turn played close to the vest. (Schrader is making wicked fun of these Che Guevara-style guerrillas, but he’s not just putting them down—he enjoys their absurdist craziness and even, to a degree, iden­tifies with it.) Dana Delany’s lyrical, sweet profile is so in­congruous among the S.L.A. faces that it seems almost loony. Nobody in the group really fits—that’s part of what saves its members from looking like the usual movie terrorists. When the group’s black General Field Marshal Cinque (Ving Rhames) announces, “I am a prophet,” his eyes don’t flash with insane ambition, and when he tells Patty to take her clothes off, no cataclysmic music is heard. The percussive score, by Scott Johnson, doesn’t wet down the material. Not once.

The New Yorker, October 17, 1988

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