In February of 1974, nineteen-year-old Patricia Hearst (Natasha Richardson), also known as Patty, was a student at Berkeley, living with her fiancé in an apartment there, when something unexpected happened. She was the granddaughter of famed, some say notorious, millionaire and media magnate William Randolph Hearst and one of the heirs to the family fortune but did not suspect she may be in danger because of her status. However, that's precisely what she was, and that night a gang broke into her home, tied her up and dragged her out to the back of a waiting car where she was locked in and driven off. What occurred over the next months would leave questions for years.
The mystery of what happened to Patty Hearst was one of the cause celebres of the mid-nineteen-seventies, but this did not concern itself on whether she was kidnapped, or her eventual rescue, more what could have possibly been going on in her head all that time. This was down to the apparent Stockholm Syndrome she fell prey to, by her own account, seeing her join her kidnappers in terrorist acts of defiance against the state - or a bank robbery and a shooting, if you prefer. Those abductors called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, and were part of a network, loose or more strongly connected, of left wing insurgent groups which proliferated in this decade in many nations.
It appeared the hippy dream of the sixties had curdled into radicalism for a number of people, but director Paul Schrader, working from Nicholas Kazan's adaptation of Hearst's own book, regarded the drive for earth-shattering revolution not as a call to arms, but as a manifestation of insanity, a madness that had exhibited itself in the more impressionable population as sloganeering violence, convincing themselves they were doing the right thing when as shown here, this rabid desire to shake up the status quo was less political engagement, and more the malaise that politics was bringing about; let's not forget the mainstream was bringing about its own crisis in sanity and credibility.
Into this morass fell Patty, who we are led to believe never had a serious political thought before, so when she was plunged into the radicalism of her kidnappers, she... what? Played along but bided her time until she was rescued or could escape? Or was she brainwashed into swallowing their agitation hook, line and sinker, hence her gun-toting appearance at the bank robbery and possible involvement in the shooting later on? Hearst herself always presented a victim status for her predicament, one the authorities were sceptical about, and Schrader, though sticking to her story as set out on the page, remained subtly sceptical within Richardson's skilled performance of uncertainty, adding details that either had you thinking yes, it could have been as she said, but then again...
She was certainly frightened of her captors, and when they were so out of their minds on revolutionary fervour no wonder as they could not be reasoned with without a hefty dose of deprogramming (the ghastly spirit of the Manson Family once again tightening its grip over the seventies). This was put across with claustrophobic unease and even distress, from the opening half hour where she was largely kept tied up and blindfolded in a cupboard for months while the so-called army delivered their speeches at her, to later on where we are invited to consider Patty went along with them because she was terrified they would murder her if she told them she wanted to be set free. Once again, the contradictions abound, and the drama reaches a stage where the impression is more that the subject can't get her thinking clear as her sense of self has been so besieged by fear and confusion. No, this didn't answer any questions, or not the ones that were most pertinent, but it got the feeling of suffocating dread so spot on that it became an ordeal to watch in itself, and not necessarily in a "good" way. Music by Scott Johnson.