Robert Stone’s “Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army” is a definitive documentary about the self-destructive fringe group of the anti-Vietnam War movement responsible for the astounding 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst. Superbly researched and constructed, pic is an improvement over last year’s “The Weather Underground,” which backed away from judging political terror on the left. Stone shows the SLA’s human face, but stresses the stain it put on American radicalism. Slated for a 2005 “American Experience” airing, docu is prime for the bigscreen where it should have vigorous play care of a savvy distrib.
“Neverland,” not unlike last year’s Sundance docu hit “The Same River Twice” (with ’60s folks trying to relive their hippie days), will be a very different movie for different generations. Auds old enough to recall the SLA saga probably will experience flashback sensations from the massive amount of film, video and audio material retrieved and assembled by Stone and his team. Younger viewers may go slack-jawed from the sheer outrageousness of everything that happens, with some feeling they missed out on an extremely exciting time and others glad they weren’t around for the madness.
Getting former SLA members Russ Little and Mike Bortin to speak extensively for the first time about their involvement is pic’s major coup. They provide two distinct perspectives and are sufficiently distanced from most of the key players so that they do not get as defensive as the on-camera participants in “Weather Underground” did.
Even more crucially, Stone tells the story without involving Hearst, the surviving figure who has garnered the most media attention. In a risky but finally brilliant gambit, Stone opted to not interview the kidnapped heiress, thus making the docu not about her but about the SLA itself.
Little’s remarks about growing up in Sarasota, Fla., and watching Errol Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and other movies about heroes taking action against injustice, set a stylistic flavor for “Neverland,” in which Stone deploys a post-modern touch of periodically inserting clips from “Robin Hood” into the telling. (Ironically, given pic’s title, there’s no footage of Mary Martin and her Lost Boys battling Captain Hook.)
Both Little and Bortin explain how they grew to distrust the U.S. government based on their view, shared by growing legions across the country, that the Vietnam War was “criminal.” Indeed, as San Francisco investigative reporter Tim Findley points out, most SLA members felt that they were patriots fighting an oppressive regime waging an illegal war.
Little recalls bonding with the core group that eventually formed the SLA in Berkeley in 1971. He says movies were a key to their radicalizing. He and others observe that repeated screenings of Costa-Gavras’ “State of Siege” provided a template of action for the group, especially in its detailed depiction of a political kidnapping.
Charismatic leader was Willy “Cujo” Wolfe, whose interest in black prisoners led to the unit’s first operation: freeing Donald DeFreeze from a California prison. DeFreeze became another major-domo in the cadre and adopted the nom de guerre of Cinque.
Docu’s central section is gripping in the extreme, as the SLA kidnaps Hearst and the media build a camp outside the home of her father, publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Stone uncovered a bevy of footage never broadcast and editor Don Kleszy fluidly and breathlessly cuts between clips including shots of Patty’s fiance, Steven Weed, facing the press (having been forgotten with time, Weed becomes one of docu’s most sympathetic figures).
The eventual conversion of Patty to the SLA’s revolutionary cause surely stands as one of the most incredible sociopolitical twists of modern times, and it plays out here like it’s happening for the first time. Patty’s claim that she fell in love with Wolfe and her open denouncement of Weed remains one of the strangest psychodramas ever played out in public.
Patty’s involvement in the group’s first bank robbery is explored in remarkable detail, with FBI agent Dan Grove explaining that CIA experts and deaf audio specialists (able to acutely read lips) were able to ascertain Patty was an aggressive, expletive-spewing member of this new set of Bonnies and Clydes.
The spectacular and fiery standoff between LAPD and SLA members in a home in South Los Angeles can’t possibly be captured here as it unfolded in real time over several commercial-free hours on TV news. But so thorough is Stone’s coverage that he even includes film of pro-SLA demonstrations, indicating distraught radicals were still at that point foolishly willing to give the SLA hero status.
No grand conclusions or ideas are arrived at, but both Little and Bortin appear slightly embarrassed now to have ever been involved with the group. Bortin is struck at how “naive radicals were fooled by a rich girl joining their cause,” and both consider the SLA’s hyper-military rhetoric to be self-delusional fantasy. Stone takes no position on Patty’s ultimate defense that she was drugged and brainwashed, but there’s plenty here to suggest her claims may have been extremely self-serving.
Docu is awash in fine optical effects, and the soundtrack is a fascinating aural landscape that’s unusually sophisticated for a docu.