Any student of recent U.S. history must be familiar with the incredible-but-true story of Patty Hearst’s abduction by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a radical militant fringe group. The S.L.A.’s young leadership was heavily armed and in love with silver-screen images of Robin Hood, Bonnie and Clyde and Che Guevara. Their oft-repeated motto was “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!” But the big question remains: what the hell does “Symbionese” mean? Was it some fictional country, the faraway land of Symbiona? Who were the Symbionese people, and why did they need liberating by an army?

We may never know the real answer, but it hardly matters. “Guerrilla” is a riveting account of this demented and scarcely believable American story (appearing just in time for the 30th anniversary of Patty Hearst’s abduction by the group). Director-producer Robert Stone has put together a richly worthy companion piece to last year’s chilling “Weather Underground,” also a PBS American Experience production. Both are trenchant chronicles of good intentions and utopian idealism gone drastically wrong. Whatever your level of sympathy or disgust for these characters, all now in their fifties, and the destructive shenanigans of their youth, both docs are essential “alternative histories” dealing with issues you ain’t gonna find in no school textbook.

S.L.A. founder Russ Little explains early on that he grew up wanting to both fight the U.S. government and become an astronaut. Co-founder Mike Bortin adds that he thought of the group as almost hyper-patriotic, on a mission to rid America of the, uh, “fascist insects” eating away at its soul. Of course – as in the case of the Weather Underground – what lit the fuse and fired the action was the Vietnam War. These kids, who had grown up proud of their country for having saved the world from Hitler, now saw their country behaving just like the Nazis, exterminating millions of innocent people for no reason at all. This perception was correct. These kids weren’t stupid: were bright and beautiful, top of their class, go-getting achievers who felt like mortal enemies of their own government – and embraced it.

The Kent State killings in May 1970, and the 1972 re-election of Tricky Dick Nixon, were the last straw. It was decided by Little, Bortin and their radical black cohorts Willy Wolfe and Donald DeFreeze that the U.S. government of the era had been hijacked by a bunch of warmongering, power-mad, right-wing criminals (any similarity to the present administration is stricly coincidental). This perception was also correct. The problem was, the newly formed S.L.A. had no real plan of action other than to shake s**t up – and, sadly, to kill people. The first victim was a black school superintendent in Oakland named Marcus Foster, supposedly part of some gigantic racist cop conspiracy.

Little was sent up for the crime. The S.L.A. were already off on the wrong foot, yet they were just getting started. Collecting reams of information on various national business and political leaders, they finally set their sights on the daughter of right-wing publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst Jr. She was a pretty young Berekley student named Patty. In early February of 1974, they kidnapped her. Their commando operation was a complete success, and with Hearst at their mercy they began making demands in the spirit of their beloved Robin Hood. The first order was that Hearst’s father buy $300 million worth of food to feed every poor person in the state of California. Despite press and government hostility towards these supposed spoiled brats playing their ridiculous Army games, the scheme actually worked early on. Food was indeed bought and delivered. But soon enough, as so often happened in those days, riots broke out and the plan fell apart.

Meanwhile, about two months after her abduction, Patty announced via audiotape to her family and the world that she had changed her name to “Tania” and fully joined the S.L.A., radicalized and heavily armed. The famous picture of her posed with a black beret and an AK-47 was released. The “Tania” story blew up all over the world, and questions popped one after another: Had she been brainwashed? Was it a case of Stockholm Syndrome? Was she being sexually abused? And, above all, what the hell were these crazy kids going to do next?

Once again, unfortunately, the answer was nothing but pointless mayhem – bank robbery and murder. Patty was deeply involved in all of it; to what extent she was there against her will remains a mystery. The fact that she was unwilling to participate herein – or the filmmakers didn’t want to interview her – is this film’s sole weakness, but it’s surprisingly minor. The film accesses plenty of photos and audio from the time, and we see the complete video of the tragic Hibernia Bank job. By the time the whole shithouse caves in, we’re too riveted to care: the S.L.A. had one final standoff with the LAPD, almost two years after Hearst’s abduction, and what a blowout it was. Stone and editor Don Kleszy intercut live film and video from the incident to create what can only be termed a great action sequence, like something out of “Heat” or “L.A. Confidential,” like the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, except filmed from right across the street instead of a half-mile away.

To sum up, this staggering climax includes: a downtown safe house, a trigger-happy SWAT team, a group of militant radicals up against the wall, a shitload of bullets, grenades, tear gas canisters and one enormous fire. America watched as five or six bodies were pulled from the wreckage, all S.L.A. members but not one of them Patty Hearst. She, as it turned out, had watched the shootout on TV in a hotel room at Disneyland.

The story goes on and on, endlessly fascinating to the last – the sensational trial, the convictions, the revelations, the recriminations. In fact, on February 4, 2003 – exactly 29 years after Hearst’s kidnapping – four middle-aged S.L.A. members pled guilty to various charges, and all are currently serving six-to-eight.

To hear these regretful “urban guerrillas” tell it now, the whole thing seems like a distant pipe dream.

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