We tend to think of the Patty Hearst affair as a chain of galvanic events, because that’s what a lot of it was. The kidnapping itself, on Feb. 4, 1974. The weeks that Hearst spent in a closet, blindfolded, subjected to death threats, which wound up (intentionally or not) as the psychological trigger for her indoctrination. Her announcement, two months after being abducted, that she had joined her captors in the Symbionese Liberation Army and had renamed herself “Tania” (a nod to the comrade of Che Guevara). The surveillance-camera recording, from April 15, 1974, of her participation in the robbery of a Hibernia Bank in San Francisco — the incident that gave us the beret-and-machine-gun radical-chic image that defines Hearst to this day. The breathless, shocked, wall-to-wall news coverage that made this the first of the contempo gonzo media juggernauts.
But, of course, most of the year and a half that Patty Hearst spent on the run with her captor-comrades was devoted to a glumly unsensational and, in the end, rather unradical activity: sitting around. “American Woman,” the first feature written and directed by the television producer/director Semi Chellas (“Mad Men,” “The Romanoffs”), presents a fictionalized but more-authentic-than-not version of the Hearst affair, and sitting around is the essential thing that happens in it.
That’s largely because of when it takes place: long after Patty’s transformation, the bank robbery, and so forth. The movie has a shoot-out (based on one that really happened, in which Patty showed off the gun training that she’d had as an heiress), and there’s one offscreen robbery and murder. But for most of the film, Patty, called Pauline here (and played by Sarah Gadon), is holed up in a farmhouse on the leafy outskirts of Monticello in upstate New York, along with two comrades who are based on Bill and Emily Harris: Juan (John Gallagher Jr.), a grouchy, bearded, short-fused anti-capitalist crank who spends the film berating his famous captive for being a “princess” who can’t see past her wealth and privilege; and his girlfriend, Yvonne (Lola Kirke), who acts like a hippie free spirit but tends to knuckle under to whatever Juan wants.
The group’s leader and ideological guru (in real life, Don DeFreeze) is, at this point, long gone, killed during a fatal smokeout by the FBI. But there’s another character on hand, based on someone not nearly as talked-about in the Hearst affair: Wendy Yoshimura, the radical antiwar activist who arrived to lend the group assistance and was with Patty during her final months as a fugitive. She’s called Jenny here, and is played by Hong Chau, the Vietnamese-American actress who gave such a lyrical performance in Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing.” In “American Woman,” Chau acts with poker-faced authority, lending Jenny a sly rationality that stands in contrast to the nutzoid guerrilla narcissism around her.
“American Woman” is based on Susan Choi’s 2003 novel, and one of the central drives of the book is to take Wendy Yoshimura, who has mostly been treated as a historical footnote to this saga, and restore her rightful place in the narrative. We take in most of what happens through her eyes, though the novel is about what was going in all these people: the collision of anger and 1960s burnout and (in some cases) flat-out craziness.
But Semi Chellas has taken what was basically a radical psychodrama and squeezed the psychology out of it. “American Woman” tries to give us a fresh angle on a familiar subject, but the film is listless and desultory. It sketches in the scuzzy power dynamics of these characters but fails, in most cases, to dramatize what made them tick.
It’s not as if the movie needed to be a docudrama. I actually wish that it had taken more liberties — had made Pauline, for instance, a flamboyantly cracked young woman in free fall. But the character we see is mostly a tremulous victim without very much of interest to say. Sure, the real Patty may have been a walking case of shell shock, but the movie somehow needed to take us closer to her thoughts — to the heiress and the deluded semi-self-willed radical, and where they meet. John Gallagher Jr. plays Juan as an unvarnished ’70s male pig — not so much a sexual terrorist as a petty megalomaniac driven to dominate, which of course makes a hostile hash of his ideology. He’s devoted to “the people” but treats the women around him like crap. But (irony noted) this gets old fast.
Hong Chau, by contrast, makes Jenny an activist eminently reasonable in her gripes. She’s a fugitive herself, wanted for the bombings of several government draft centers, but she always points out that they were targeted at night (so that there would be no casualties). Her whole anti-war fervor is rooted in her experience of the U.S. internment of Japanese citizens during WWII. (The real Wendy Yoshimura was, in fact, born in an internment camp.) Chau presents a soberly moral surface that holds the film together.
Yet reasonableness, in a way, is not what we want from the Patty Hearst saga. It’s too tidy; it doesn’t do justice to what drove even good people during this era to go too far. “American Woman” ends with Jenny and Pauline escaping on a cross-country trek that has a touch of romance (not so much erotic romance as women-on-the-road desperado idealism), but that just makes the movie seem like the tale of two people driving toward the edge of a cliff, only in this case there’s no cliff at all, just an overly soft landing.