Borrowing from the taut docudrama style of Richard Brooks' "In Cold Blood," director Paul Schrader offers a trim, sleek, point-by-point approach to "Patty Hearst" that becomes a sometimes fascinating, always interesting review of recent history.
There's a bias here, of course, since Hearst wrote the book on which the film is based and since she has cooperated with its production and release. And a true cynic who doubted her story initially might simply point out that she is making an awful lot of money retelling it from time to time.
But there is something inherently compelling about the idea that something like this could happen, and the events are so familiar to anyone who was of age when it occurred that much of it seems like a rerun. (And in fact there was a TV movie on this story some years ago.)
Natasha Richardson, in her first major film role, accomplishes a truly difficult thing in making Hearst sympathetic, since the film seems to be telling us she was a mousey dolt who simply went along with whatever game was going down.
Granted, as is graphically detailed in the film's opening sequences, Hearst was violently kidnapped in 1974 and kept prisoner in a closet for two months, repeatedly raped by her captors. So her willingness to cooperate was most certainly an instinct of survival.
But the questions that were asked so often back then again come to mind here - why didn't she escape when she had the opportunity later on? Why did she instead actually join this simple-minded, rhetoric-spewing band of '60s refugees who considered themselves revolutionaries, but were in fact more oppressive in their own little commune than was the government they decried?
And more to the point, how could she turn so starkly against her values that she actually robbed a bank and shot up a storefront?
The movie doesn't really attempt to answer these questions so much as present them for public perusal - for your consideration, if you will. And it may be merely gruesome voyeurism, but there's something about this yarn that continues to hold interest.
In the hard-line '80s it would have been easy to be either so sympathetic toward Hearst as to become sentimental or so cynical as to present an indictment.
But instead Schrader, whose other films ("Hardcore," "Cat People") have tended to be exploitative, is surprisingly objective and allows the audience to decide for itself. It's a rather brave approach, and it works very well in this context.
"Patty Hearst," rated R for violence, sex, nudity, profanity and vulgarity, is a tough look at an incident that seems to be still in the public consciousness, told from the point of view of the victim. You may not come away with a lot of new information (until the revelations at the end about what all the players are doing these days), but you may have renewed sympathy for Hearst.