‘Patty Hearst’ – Based on a True Story, But in a Good Way

I have always been fascinated by the story of Patty Hearst, of how she was kidnapped by the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) in an effort to get some of their comrades released from jail. How she later joined the SLA in their fight against what they perceived as a fascist police state fascinated me even more. When I first heard about this event, probably around the same time the movie was released, I couldn’t help but wonder, how can someone who was kidnapped by people with guns suddenly join up with her captors? Can someone be changed into a completely different person in a situation like this? Taking all this into account, I wonder if makes sense we should prosecute someone for crimes they committed after being brainwashed and sexually abused by their captors. It’s such a strange story, and one ripe to be made into a movie. Thank goodness the story of her ordeal ended up in the hands of the great Paul Schrader, famed screenwriter of “Taxi Driver” and director of “Blue Collar,” Affliction” and “First Reformed.”

Yes, “Patty Hearst” is based on a true story, but this movie was made back in 1988 when that term actually meant something. Is this movie factually true to what happened to her in real life? I don’t know and, quite frankly don’t care. Movies based on a true story always have moments which are fictionalized or changed for dramatic effect. It is too easy to brand movies like these as “a lie” or “factually incorrect” to what actually happened. Movies cannot play a real story out the same way it did in real life because there has to be a structured story in place which takes you from point A to point B. In the end, the filmmakers need to be respectful of the facts, but they can’t just do it the same exact way it all happened. Besides, people will accuse the filmmakers of being too faithful to the original material, and this makes it all seem like a no-win situation. People making these kinds of movies are going to get attacked one way or the other, and there is no way around it.

“Patty Hearst” stars Natasha Richardson in her breakthrough performance as the title character, and the movie starts with her walking around the campus of UC Berkeley, giving us our first glimpse of her as a person. In a voiceover, she takes the first opportunity of many to break down preconceptions that may have of Patty Hearst who is the granddaughter of the famous publisher William Randolph Hearst. From the start, she makes it clear Patty was never spoiled and had a happy, normal childhood. These opening moments show how nothing could have prepared her for the kidnapping which would come to define her life.

What makes this movie so effective is the way Schrader manages to tell the whole movie almost entirely from Patty’s point of view. As a result, we end up experiencing what she goes through as she is thrown into the trunk of a car and driven off to a place where she is imprisoned in a tiny closet. Spending most of her time in this claustrophobic space, she becomes completely disoriented. Throughout, she is met by soldiers of the SLA who shout their beliefs at her, and she is made to believe she is the enemy. These moments are presented with the actors acting in front of a blindingly white backdrop which gives us a strong feeling of displacement as even we don’t know where we are. What keeps Patty going through this is her gnawing fear of being buried alive, and of her need to survive.

The fact Patty ends up joining the SLA in their “revolutionary” fight makes sense as it is presented here. Having been cut off from those she loves and being exposed to a whole other set of people and ideas, what choice could she have had? Seriously, it’s not like she had much of a chance to escape. In the end, the SLA is basically a cult, and like all effective cults, they broke down Patty’s spirit until there was nothing left. Everything from her life up to that point was made to seem false, and she had no way of believing otherwise. Her captors offer her a choice of joining them, or to go home. But by going home, Patty interprets this as being killed or even worse, being buried alive.

From there, the movie shows Patty going from terrified hostage to being a soldier for the SLA. The moment where her blindfold is removed and she is finally given a chance to look at her captors is actually a beautiful moment as it is made to seem Patty is now surrounded by people who are more loving than they are threatening to her. It is also a relief for the audience as we too are now out of the claustrophobic state of mind to where our eyes are wide open. From there, we are with Patty every step of the way to even after she is arrested and incarcerated for her involvement.

What really powers “Patty Hearst” is the performance of Natasha Richardson which is nothing short of remarkable. She takes Patty from being a helpless and frightened hostage to a believer, and then she takes her to being a martyr where she is broken down but given a chance to build herself back up again. In spite of all the media coverage this case was given back in the 1970’s, Richardson gives us a Patty Hearst who can be seen as a person with a heart, and not just as a blip on the popular culture landscape. She nails every emotional moment of Patty’s evolution truthfully, and she is utterly fascinating to watch throughout. In the movie’s final shot, it is just her face we see as she seems at peace with herself and of what she needs to do to show the world the truth of what she has been through, and she gives this movie the exact note it needs to end on.

In addition, Richardson is surrounded by remarkable character actors who have since become better known following this movie’s release. Among them is Ving Rhames in a pre-“Pulp Fiction” performance as Cinque, the leader of the SLA. Ving makes Cinque an intimidating force which you believe can hold all his followers at bay with even a little bit of effort. In effect, Cinque is the glue which holds the SLA together.

Also in the movie is William Forsythe, a terrific character actor who plays Teko, a most faithful follower of the SLA who tries to hold the movement together when its leadership suddenly falls apart. Frances Fisher, who would later co-star in “Unforgiven” and “Titanic,” plays Yolanda who ends up in a power struggle with Teko over the direction in which the SLA is poised to take. Through these two performances, we see how easily a group can quickly disintegrate when there is no real leader to keep them focused and together as a whole.

But of my other favorite performances comes from Dana Delany whose role as Gelina is a lovely delight. Gelina’s thinking is clearly warped beyond repair, but she presents Patty with the only real kindness she gets during her captivity. As Gelina, Delany gives us a character as giddy as she is dangerous to those around her.

There is also Jodi Long who plays Wendy Yoshimura, an SLA member who becomes disillusioned with the movement and of what they are trying to accomplish. Seeing the damage done, she is now more prepared to give up rather than face a pointless fire fight with the “pigs.” I really liked Long’s take on the character, and she gives us a strong human being who does not bend easily to the threats made against her.

“Patty Hearst” also features one of the most unique film scores I have ever heard. Composed by Scott Johnson, it is a mixture of both electronic elements and woodwind instruments, and the score helps Schrader in creating a disorienting environment which we and Patty are forced to endure against our will. I cannot think of another film score I can compare this one to. It was Johnson’s first and only movie score ever, and it was out of print for years. In 2007, however, it was finally re-released through Tzadik Records.

This material is perfect ground for Schrader to cover as a filmmaker and a screenwriter. From Robert DeNiro in “Taxi Driver” to George C. Scott in “Hardcore” and to Nick Nolte in “Affliction,” Schrader has long since been endlessly fascinated by individuals who are so alienated from the world around them to where they have long since descended into madness. Patty Hearst, as Schrader shows her here, does not become alienated from the world by choice, but by force, and her dire circumstances of joining a movement she has no business being in makes us wonder what we would do under similar circumstances. We never get to see the world outside of Patty’s point of view, so when she is brought back into reality, we are made to feel as bad as she does when she is made into a martyr in everyone’s eyes.

The movie got a mixed reaction when it was released back in 1988. From watching the movie’s trailer, I imagine moviegoers may have been expecting something more action packed when they walked into the theater. But what “Patty Hearst” really proves to be is a character study, and an endlessly fascinating one as well. While some may find this movie dull, I loved how it got into the inner workings of the SLA, and it made sense of how someone could be forced to join a group they never would have in a sane state of mind. How you view this movie may very well depend on what you are expecting from it.

I really liked what Schrader did with the story and characters. Had this story been in the hands of another director, it may have come across as more exploitive than anything else. Schrader, however, has far more on his mind than playing with all the titillating facts of this case. Throughout, he explores the evolution of a person who goes from being a victim to becoming a participant who later became a pariah, and he gets under the skin of his subject in a way others were unable or unwilling to do.

But what makes “Patty Hearst” work so effectively is the mesmerizing performance of Natasha Richardson. With her entrancing beauty and natural talent, she makes us want to follow Patty to the end of her journey. Whether we agree or disagree with what Patty did, we empathize with her and are forced to look at ourselves and wonder what we would have done in similar circumstances.

Richardson was so great to watch here, and she makes me want to watch this movie again and again. It was so tragic that we lost her at the age of 45, and years later we are still mourning her death. She left us with a great volume of work which deserved even more chapters than it was given.

After all these years, we still miss you very much Natasha.

* * * * out of * * * *

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