Detailed, lengthy, and somewhat meticulous, this made-for-TV dramatization of heiress Patricia Hearst’s kidnapping and reconditioning by political radicals offers an adequate recitation of an event that ranks among the most notorious episodes in 1970s America. The title is a bit of a misnomer, partially because the protagonist is the FBI agent supervising the search for Hearst, and partially because the filmmakers fail to provide real insight into Heart’s psychological state. This is outside-in storytelling rather than inside-out, so a more accurate title would have been The Search for Patty Hearst. Yes, the picture depicts all the infamous moments, such as Heart’s participation in a bank robbery, but this is not the same as trying to explain Hearst’s experience of Stockholm Syndrome. Moreover, while TV mainstay Dennis Weaver is serviceable in the leading role of the FBI agent, Lisa Eilbacher isn’t given room to explore all of Hearst’s complicated dimensions. The actress is good enough in the most important scenes that one wishes the filmmakers had put her front and center.
Shot in a slick but unadorned style, with some scenes energized by handheld, verite-style camerawork, The Ordeal of Patty Hearst opens by setting up the circumstances of FBI agent Charles Bates (Weaver). A veteran investigator, he’s facing professional obstacles including the imposition of a new mandatory retirement age and various public outcries for government transparency following the Watergate controversy. When Hearst is kidnapped, he’s under a microscope in every way imaginable. Worse, his investigation is hampered because most leads emanate from the San Francisco counterculture, and the denizens of that realm harbor profound anti-law-enforcement sentiments. Disappointingly, the filmmakers portray Bates as a saint with a badge, so even when his investigation stalls, we’re expected to root for his success. Employing hagiography techniques is not the best way to instill the viewer with confidence in the credibility of storytelling. The scenes with Hearst have more edge. She’s taken at gunpoint from her home, tossed in a lightless closet, tormented with propaganda and psychological seduction, and generally disengaged from her own identity over the course of weeks-long captivity. Eventually, she is rechristened Tania, a soldier in the Symbionese Liberation Army, so it’s Tania, rather than Hearst, who carries a machine gun into the bank robbery alongside SLA comrades.
Again, seeing this stuff is one thing, but making us feel and think what Hearst did is another, and the higher ambition is beyond this project’s scope. Still, the see-it-now method renders a few vivid sequences, notably the violent standoff between police and an SLA contingent in Watts, and the score by John Rubenstein adds layers of eeriness and tension. Better still, the filmmakers do a fair job of explaining how leads and legwork eventually led FBI agents to Hearst’s final hiding place, and the parallels that are drawn between internal conflicts at the FBI and similar friction within the SLA are interesting. Also worth nothing is the presence in the supporting cast of actors who later achieved fame: indie-cinema sexpot Rosanna Arquette, Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul guy Jonathan Banks, and future horror-cinema fave Robert Englund.
The Ordeal of Patty Hearst: FUNKY