‘The Radical Story of Patty Hearst’ Lives Up To its Name

Last year I read a book I absolutely could not put down, a crazy tale about the kidnapping of an heiress who quickly adopted her captors’ cause and incoherent politics and went on the lam with them for over a year — a tale made crazier by the fact that it all really happened in Northern California in 1974.

That book, American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin, painted a vivid picture of the whole affair, and it was one of the funniest books I have read in years, as the story is rich with odd-to-hilarious details and characters and coincidences and straight-up ineptitude. If the whole thing didn’t start with a pointless murder, it would make a great comedy (and the news that Alexander and Karazeswki, who with The People vs. Larry Flynt showed good tonal dexterity with similarly weighty material, are working up a cinematic treatment suggests that it may yet). The motives of the kidnappers, their propensity to screw up nearly everything they attempted, and the odd behavior of nearly everyone involved, from Hearst herself to her family to her captors-turned-comrades to the cops and the media, all add up to a striking picture of one of the most memorable cases of the early ‘70s.

CNN indirectly adapts the book into documentary form with The Radical Story of Patty Hearst, part 1 of 3 on-demand here), presenting the story in a more traditional TV-documentary format complete with re-enactments and new interviews with some of the participants, like Hearst’s live-in boyfriend, who she was home with at the time of the kidnapping, Steven Weed.

Toobin’s book has it that when Hearst’s kidnappers arrived, Steven pretty much ran out the front door and left Hearst there to fend for herself. He is ultimately a very minor figure in the story, so when the doc turned itself over to 12 minutes of Steven Weed talking about their relationship, I have to admit I started to get worried. But then the story turns to the kidnappers, and the formation of their gang, and it’s where things get good: A bunch of Berkeley students involved in a counseling program with inmates at Vacaville prison, a hotbed of prison reform politics at the time, falling under the spell of career criminal Donald DeFreeze, who would whip them up into an activist frenzy as the Symbionese Liberation Army (‘Symbionese’ being a meaningless term that DeFreeze made up), murdering a school activist and then, in an effort to ransom their comrades out of custody for the killings, kidnapping Patricia Hearst.

The array of characters in this story, as well as just how crazy far-Left politics got in the early ‘70s, is totally captivating, and though The Radical Story occasionally falls prey to some cheesy tropes like the Dateline re-enactments and showing favor to the few surviving interview subjects who agreed to participate (Hearst does not), it does keep Toobin on hand to point out the story’s more amusing elements, including the way they tried to burn down their own safe house to destroy any evidence they may have left there, only to leave the windows closed, leaving the fire to peter out and all the evidence on full display to put the Feds on the SLA’s trail. (This is only one of many such errors.)

Part 1 of this doc is up on CNN now and goes up through the events of Patricia’s kidnapping, and the fact that Bill Harris, who with his wife Emily was on the lam with the fugitive Hearst to the bitter end, even after the rest of the SLA had been killed, is participating and speaking much more candidly about crimes he committed than you tend to see in a documentary, suggests that the later episodes, where Harris plays a much bigger role in the story – which, spoiler alert, will involve Patricia immediately joining the SLA, participating in an armed bank robbery, shooting at cops through the window of a getaway car, and actively evading capture for over a year — should be quite colorful.

As always, the book is better, but this documentary has a wealth of photos of these weirdos that the book didn’t, it shows the real locations, it has firsthand commentary from principal actors (though not THE principal actor) and with other footage of the time it helps to paint a deeper picture of just how TOTALLY CRAZY things were in 1974 America — something we tend to forget all these years later.

The Radical Story of Patty Hearst premieres Feburary 11 on CNN; part 1 is available now on-demand.