DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's guest, Jeffrey Toobin, wrote the definitive book about the O.J. Simpson trial. His latest book, called "American Heiress," is about the kidnapping and trial of Patricia Hearst, which was a huge media story in the 1970s. His book is now out in paperback. Patty Hearst was targeted because of her family and its fortune. Her grandfather, powerful newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, was the basis of the main character in the film "Citizen Kane."
In 1974, when Patty Hearst was a 19-year-old college student at Berkeley, she was kidnapped by a small, armed revolutionary group called the SLA, the Symbionese Liberation Army, which had an incoherent ideology and unclear goals. After being blindfolded for about two months, she was offered the chance to renounce her past and become a guerrilla soldier in the SLA. She took the offer and in a recording released to a radio station, denounced her family and declared her allegiance to the SLA. In a photo that become iconic, she posed with an automatic weapon. A couple of weeks after that, she brandished an automatic weapon in an SLA bank robbery.
The question was always was, she coerced or did she become a believer? The jury found her guilty of bank robbery and using a firearm in a felony. Jeffrey Toobin writes about legal issues for The New Yorker and is a legal analyst for CNN. He spoke to Terry last year.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Jeffrey Toobin, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So...
JEFFREY TOOBIN: Hi, Terry.
GROSS: (Laughter) Why did you want to write a book about Patty Hearst? You were 14, approximately, when she was kidnapped.
TOOBIN: Thirteen but who's counting?
TOOBIN: I'm, you know, trying to keep it as low as possible. I wrote a story for The New Yorker about three years ago about a gang that took over a jail in Baltimore. And the name of the gang was called the Black Guerrilla Family. And I got interested in the history of the Black Guerrilla Family, which it turned out was founded in the California prisons in the 1970s.
In the 1970s, part - a big part of the sort of counterculture movement, especially in the West Coast, was prison activism. And I started looking into that. And I saw that the Symbionese Liberation Army, which was the group that ultimately kidnapped Patty Hearst, was also started in the California prisons. And I got interested in the story. And I thought, wow, well, there must be a hundred books about Patty Hearst.
And then I realized nothing had been written about this case for more than 30 years. So I decided to take a completely fresh look at it.
GROSS: Wait, now, was the Black Guerrilla Family the group that was founded by George Jackson?
TOOBIN: Exactly, that's right.
GROSS: And George Jackson, who was one of the Soledad Brothers and was a Panther, was also, like, the role model for the founder of the SLA, which kidnapped Patty Hearst.
TOOBIN: That's right. And George Jackson was this extraordinarily intelligent, combustible, dangerous, fascinating prisoner who was ultimately killed by guards in his prison in California. Donald DeFreeze was, like, a junior varsity George Jackson, a less compelling, less interesting, less intelligent figure in every respect. And he became the leader of the SLA. And he called himself, with the usual nuttiness of the SLA, General Field Marshal Cinque.
GROSS: Yes, (laughter) very grandiose title. So you write in your book that the story of the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst is very much a story of the '70s, not the '60s. So it's an interesting differentiation that you make.
TOOBIN: Well, this is something...
GROSS: Describe why you say that, yeah.
TOOBIN: ...That was really striking to me. I mean, as you unkindly pointed out, I am old enough to have been alive during these periods. But I really, you know, I was a kid. I didn't really know it. And historically, my sense was, you know, the '60s were the time of tumult in America. In the '70s, it all sort of petered out. Well, that is precisely wrong.
The '70s were a toxic, dangerous, scary time in America. And if there is one statistic that jumps out at me, and certainly is highly relevant to this story, is that during the early and mid-'70s, there were a thousand - a thousand bombings a year in the United States. Weather Underground, splinter groups - imagine what it would be like today with a thousand bombings a year.
And that's indicative of the violent, political culture that the SLA came out of.
GROSS: And just to contextualize the kidnapping of Patty Hearst - two days after the kidnapping, the House voted to authorize the Judiciary Committee to hold hearings to impeach President Nixon.
TOOBIN: And that's - you know, that is significant. I mean, it is a time when all American institutions were reeling. You had Watergate, as you point out. You had the energy crisis. You had Vietnam still not quite over. It really seemed like America was splitting at the seams, especially in the Bay Area, which really had the worst of all possible worlds when it came to violence.
GROSS: When she was kidnapped, she was 19. She was a student - what? - at UC Berkeley?
TOOBIN: Berkeley, yes.
GROSS: Yeah. And she was living with her 25-year-old boyfriend, Steve Weed, who was a graduate student. You describe her then as basically being - I wouldn't say under his thumb - but that he made the decisions. He decided what the schedule was, even the sexual schedule. She did all the housework and cleaning. She was kind of cut off from friends because she was so much in his orbit. Am I getting that right?
TOOBIN: You're getting it exactly right. And, you know, the SLA, when they kidnapped Patty, knew nothing about her except that she was a Hearst and that she was a sophomore at Berkeley. But they caught her at a particularly vulnerable and restless moment in her life. She had outraged her parents by moving in with her older boyfriend.
But that relationship was souring. Later, she described herself as being mildly suicidal. She wanted to get out of the relationship but didn't - she didn't want to admit to her parents it was a failure. She was starting to have an awakening - a political awakening of sorts. She was 19. And like a lot of 19-year-olds, she was very much an unformed person. And the SLA barged into her life at a time when she was uniquely receptive to new influences.
GROSS: So they find her address because there's an engagement notice in the newspaper (laughter). Through student housing information, they track down where she's living and show up and kidnap her. Her boyfriend gets beaten up and then runs away. So what's your understanding of why the SLA decided to kidnap Patty Hearst?
TOOBIN: Well, one of the themes of the book is that the SLA was such an irrational organization that it's hard to pinpoint why they did much of anything. But the important fact to know about the SLA is that two months before the kidnapping, the SLA had murdered in cold blood the Oakland school superintendent, Marcus Foster, who was this really rather heroic African-American educator.
And for reasons that - Donald DeFreeze thought that Foster was a competitor for leadership. It was a completely irrational, horrible act. And two people - two of the only dozen or so SLA members - were arrested for the crime of killing Marcus Foster. The initial impulse to kidnap Patty was to basically try to arrange a trade of Patty Hearst for the two people who had been charged with killing Marcus Foster.
But that, of course, was never going to happen. Ronald Reagan, the governor of California, was never going to agree to release two accused murderers. So the fact is they kidnapped Patty Hearst without a clear idea of what their ransom demands would be.
GROSS: So they used her to try to get her father to spend $4 million buying food for people. That didn't quite work out as they planned, but he maybe spent $2 million on food.
TOOBIN: This is very significant.
TOOBIN: I mean, that - Patty saw that the SLA wasn't trying to make money for themselves. They saw that the SLA was trying to use her captivity to help the poor. And, you know, isolated in a closet in Daly City, Calif., she heard the SLA talking about how they were trying to help the poor. They said that Randy Hearst wasn't really cooperating. They said that the FBI was trying to kill them all, including Patty. And in fairly short order, Patty was persuaded that the SLA was not the real villains here, but it was the FBI. It was her family. It was the establishment in California.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Toobin, and his new book is called "American Heiress: The Wild Saga Of The Kidnapping, Crimes And Trial Of Patty Hearst." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Toobin, who writes about the courts for The New Yorker and is also a legal correspondent for CNN. He has a new book called "American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst." He also wrote the book about O.J. Simpson called "The Run Of His Life."
Let's talk about the SLA, which kidnapped Patty Hearst. SLA stands for Symbionese Liberation Army. I had no idea what Symbionese ever meant until reading your book. Apparently, it's some kind of play on symbiosis.
TOOBIN: Right. Donald DeFreeze, General Field Marshal Cinque, was a, you know, sort of a half-baked theorist. And he came up with this word. He made up this word based on the idea of symbiosis. And so a helpful way of thinking of the SLA is that it's a made - there's no such thing as Symbionese. They didn't liberate anything or anyone. And as an army, they had, at tops, about a dozen people. So it is an utterly misleading but certainly memorable name.
GROSS: I'm really so interested in men like Donald DeFreeze, who went by the name Cinque. People who - like, he was, like - was a grandiose leader, very cultish. Really, he was creating, like, a minicult, a cult with very few but very passionate followers, using the rhetoric of the far left and of the liberation movements of South America and Africa for a totally incoherent cause.
TOOBIN: Well, you know, this was not completely out of the ordinary. Remember, this was California. This was only a few years after the Manson Family. This was simultaneous with and relevant to the Reverend Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, which was - which - and Jim Jones figures in "American Heiress." So this was a time of fake messiahs.
And, you know, it's interesting talking to people about the SLA. You - people say to me, oh, they were, like, one of these radical black groups. The only African-American in the SLA was Donald DeFreeze. All the rest of the SLA were these recent college graduates, college dropouts, middle-class kids who were looking for what they thought was the authenticity of a convict leader. And the way that DeFreeze manipulated these young followers, basically for sex and for - to help him escape from prison, really is a almost poignant example of how people could be misled and seduced.
GROSS: Would you describe how his followers met him when he was in prison?
TOOBIN: Well, see, this goes back to the California prisons in the '70s, which were sort of a hotbed of political activity. And for a time, DeFreeze was in a prison called Vacaville, which is the nearest state prison to Berkeley. And one of the things that counterculture figures did in Berkeley in the '70s is that they went to Vacaville. And they, you know, had what was then called encounter sessions or rap sessions with the prisoners. It was meant as - at least as far as the prison authorities were concerned - as kind of a consciousness-raising educational exchange. But in fact, it was an exercise in mutual radicalization.
And in fact, during these visits, this is when the criminal enterprises - the murders, the bank robberies, the escapes - of the SLA started to be planned in Vacaville prison. And in fact, Donald DeFreeze was transferred from Vacaville to Soledad prison. There, he escaped. And the first place he went was to Berkeley, where he hooked up with these students who became the core of the SLA.
GROSS: And you mentioned he was the only black member of the SLA. But, like, in one of his communiques, he says, I am a black man and representative of black people, which is absurd. He had, like, no black followers.
TOOBIN: Well - and that was, I think, indicative of how deluded he was. And, of course, his...
GROSS: Oh, and the Panthers opposed him...
GROSS: ...After the murder of the superintendent of the Oakland schools.
TOOBIN: Exactly. To the extent there was even a possibility of, you know, an alliance with other black leaders, the murder of Marcus Foster poisoned that well. The Black Panthers were hardly a, you know, bougie group. I mean, they were pretty radical themselves. But even they were completely appalled at the murder of Marcus Foster and wanted nothing to do with the SLA.
And one of the stories of the whole kidnapping and the saga - one of the reasons, in a way, it took so long to catch Patty and the remnant of the SLA was that they had no connections to anybody. They were almost completely isolated. So there was no route in for the people - the FBI and others - who were pursuing them.
GROSS: The debate during the Patty Hearst trial and the question that still lingers and the question that frames your book is, was she brainwashed or radicalized? And, you know, she maintained in the trial that she was brainwashed because she was, you know, locked in a closet and living under threat. So describe to us what you know about her early days of being kidnapped. She was kidnapped. She was put in a trunk, then taken to the place where the SLA was living. And then what?
TOOBIN: Well, she was put in a closet for a while. But after a short period of time, the closet door was opened and the SLA people started to talk to her. And there were several of the SLA people who were actually close in age and similar in background to Patricia, including Willie Wolfe, who was the youngest member of the SLA, the son of a physician in Connecticut, an upper-middle-class kid who spent a lot of time talking with her. Angela Atwood, a former actress who went to Indiana University from New Jersey, she befriended Patricia. And one of the core disputes between the SLA and Patricia about what went on there is that Patricia claims that she was raped by Willie Wolfe. The survivors of the SLA claim that Patricia fell in love with Willie Wolfe and, in fact, had a consensual sexual relationship with him.
Now, according to modern ideas of consent, I don't think you can assert that a woman who's been kidnapped and has been kept in a closet can issue a meaningful consent to sex. But the issue of her relationship with Willie Wolfe turns out to be a crucial one for determining whether she actually did become a member of the SLA and join with them over the next year and a half.
GROSS: After she was kidnapped, one of the members of the SLA took a photo of her that became one of the, like, iconic images of the era. And I'd like you to describe the photo.
TOOBIN: Well, the photograph is Patricia standing with a machine gun in front of the SLA flag, which was - it's a seven-headed cobra. And it was taken shortly before the famous bank robbery on April 15, 1974, of the Hibernia Bank, where Patricia was also photographed by a security camera holding a different machine gun.
And the photograph, which was distributed to the press during - while she was in captivity - I think the expression on her face is so mysterious and so subject to so many different interpretations. Can I just read what I wrote about it?
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
TOOBIN: (Reading) This iconic photograph became one of the most famous images of the 1970s. Patricia's expression is inscrutable, as subject to as many interpretations as the larger tale of her captivity. She looks steely or terrified. Her lips are pursed in determination or defeat. She could be battle-ready or battered.
And I think, again, this photograph is a metaphor for her whole story because you want - you look at this photograph and you have to wonder, whose side is she on? And again, it's also a broader metaphor because it's about the '70s where young people, even a Hearst, were so at sea that many people could actually believe that a Hearst would become a revolutionary. And the mystery of that photograph is really what the mystery of this book is about.
BIANCULLI: Jeffrey Toobin, speaking to Terry Gross last year. His book, "American Heiress," is now out in paperback. After a break, we'll continue their conversation, and film critic David Edelstein will review "The Circle," the new movie starring Tom Hanks. And we'll end with a short tribute to filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who died Wednesday at age 73. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview from last year with author Jeffrey Toobin. They're discussing his latest book, "American Heiress," which is now out in paperback. It's the story of the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the armed radical group the SLA, the crimes they committed, her subsequent trial and how this story fit into the culture and politics of the '70s. Toobin also wrote the book "The Run Of His Life" about the O.J. Simpson trial, which was adapted into the recent miniseries on the FX network. Toobin writes about legal issues for The New Yorker and is a legal analyst for CNN.
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GROSS: After Patty Hearst was kidnapped, she participated in an SLA bank robbery. She had a machine gun for that robbery. Did she use it during that robbery?
TOOBIN: It jammed. And one of the lingering disputes at the trial was whether she would have used it if it hadn't jammed. She claimed that she never would have used it. The SLA claimed that she was supposed to and was trying to fire the machine gun into the ceiling. But just because when altering the bullets to add cyanide - another theatrical gesture that was a signature of the SLA, cyanide-laden bullets - the bullets were damaged and thus couldn't be fired.
GROSS: There's an incident that you describe as the crossroads of her captivity. And this is the robbery of a sporting goods store. And you describe this is the moment when Patty Hearst had the greatest number of options before her. So two of the members of the SLA are with her. They're in the store, robbing it. She's in the van. So why do you think this is, like, the turning point for her?
TOOBIN: OK. Just for context, the bank robbery is April 15, 1974. The eight members of the SLA plus Patty flee to Los Angeles because the heat gets too bad in San Francisco. They're all holed up in a small house. Patty and two of the SLA members decide to go shopping. They need stuff, and they go to a sporting goods store. Bill and Emily Harris go inside the sporting goods store, leaving Patty in a van across the street with the key in the ignition. She's free to leave. She can drive away. She could walk away, but instead she waits.
Bill and Emily Harris, you know, stupidly decide to shoplift. They leave the store, and the clerk tackles them on the sidewalk. So across the street, Patty Hearst is looking at her two comrades tackled by the clerk. So what does she do alone in the van? Does she drive away? Does she walk away? No. She picks up a machine gun and fires wildly across the street to try to free Bill and Emily Harris. It doesn't work at first, so she picks up another gun and fires another fusillade of bullets across the street, miraculously not hitting anybody but, in fact, successfully freeing Bill and Emily Harris, who get back into the van and drive off.
And as you think about that encounter on May 16, 1974, that, to me, is the symbol and the demonstration of how Patty Hearst had really changed sides.
GROSS: Shortly after this, six of the members of the SLA, including the founder, Cinque, died in a police ambush. Some of them were shot. The ambush ended up in a fire. The roof collapsed. So these people were all killed in that. Patty and the two people who she was with at this sporting goods store weren't there, so they lived. And - Patricia Hearst remains on the lam until she's finally arrested by the FBI.
So that's a story in and of itself. But to save time, I want to jump to the trial. So it's interesting for you (laughter) having...
GROSS: ...Written about the O.J. trial that her parents eventually choose F. Lee Bailey as her lawyer, and he later works on the O.J. defense. Why did they choose him to be her lawyer?
TOOBIN: In 1975, when Patricia was arrested, there was no more famous lawyer in America than F. Lee Bailey. He was the definition of the swashbuckling, charismatic, genius defense lawyer. He had gotten off Sam Sheppard, the doctor who was the basis for "The Fugitive." He sought out publicity in a way that defense attorneys rarely did. So if you were looking for the hottest defense lawyer in the country, you would certainly consider F. Lee Bailey as Patty's parents did.
GROSS: But it sounds like he didn't do a very good job. He avoided having her found guilty of murder. But he put her on the stand, and that ended up to be a disaster.
TOOBIN: It was a disaster for a very simple reason because - you know, we talked about the shootout in Los Angeles on May 16, 1974. The next day, May 17, is when all her colleagues are killed. She's not arrested for 13 months. During those 13 months, she participates in an extraordinary number of crimes. She robs two more banks. In one of those bank robberies, a woman named Myrna Opsahl is killed. She helped set off bombs in Northern California. And F. Lee Bailey puts her on the witness stand without getting a clear ruling from the judge about whether she could be questioned about the other crimes she committed with the SLA during the 13 months she was on the run with them.
The judge ultimately says to the prosecutors, yes, you can ask about all those other crimes. And Bailey basically is forced to tell Patricia to take the Fifth Amendment in front of the jury, to refuse to answer questions in front of the jury. That is a catastrophe. The jury is left to infer that Patricia has a lot to hide, which she does. And that insignificant part leads to her being found guilty of the original bank robbery.
GROSS: And two other things that led her to be found guilty was - her shoot up at the sporting goods store was inconsistent with her claims of being under constant duress and unable to escape. But then there's a kind of charm that she had that was also a turning point for the jury. Do you want to explain that?
TOOBIN: Well, you know, this is one of these sort of magical, last-minute reversals in trials that sometimes take place. The prosecutors in the case were struggling with the issue that everybody struggles about in the Patty Hearst case, which is how do you establish that she really was a member of the SLA? You know, how do you prove that she believed and really joined with the SLA?
Well, just by coincidence, towards the end of the trial, Bill and Emily Harris give an interview to New Times magazine where the interviewers ask that question. It's like, how do we know Patty Hearst really joined with the SLA? And Emily Harris says, well, you know, she loved Willie Wolfe. She carried around this little charm with him - that he gave her. His whole...
GROSS: He was one of the members of the SLA?
TOOBIN: Right, who was killed in the shootout.
And, you know, why would she carry that charm with him if she hated him, if she hated all of us? Well, the U.S. attorneys read that interview. And they said, you know what? Let's go look in her purse that was with her when she was arrested. And they go - during the trial, they go to the FBI locker. They empty the purse, and they find this little charm. It's called an Olmec monkey from Mexico. And they see that also Willie Wolfe, when he was killed in the shootout, had an Olmec monkey around his neck.
And this romantic gesture, this idea that she was carrying Willie Wolfe's charm with her for more than a year later is introduced to the jury at the very last moment of the trial. And the argument is made, why would she carry this little charm if Willie Wolfe was a rapist, if she hated Willie Wolfe? And the jury was very moved by that argument. And that was one of the things jurors really found persuasive, that she, in fact, had joined with the SLA. And that was one of the main reasons she was found guilty.
GROSS: So what was her sentence?
TOOBIN: Seven years in federal prison.
GROSS: Which was later commuted by President Carter. And she served a total of 22 months.
TOOBIN: Correct. And there was a big national campaign. Ronald Reagan, close friend of the Hearst family, was part of this. Her local congressman, Leo Ryan, was part of this. There was a big movement to commute her sentence. And Jimmy Carter, the president at the time, commuted her sentence after 22 months of a seven-year sentence.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Toobin. We're talking about his new book, "American Heiress: The Wild Saga Of The Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial Of Patty Hearst." We're going to be back right after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Toobin. We're talking about his new book, "American Heiress: The Wild Saga Of The Kidnapping, Crimes And Trial Of Patty Hearst."
So you're convinced that it's not that she was brainwashed but that she actually kind of fell for the SLA rhetoric and became one of them. What convinces you?
TOOBIN: Well, you know, in writing "American Heiress," I tried to avoid using terms like brainwashing, like Stockholm syndrome. Those are journalistic terms. Those aren't medical terms. My view of Patricia's story is that she responded rationally to the circumstances she was confronted with at each stage of the process.
She was 19 years old. She was being treated well by the SLA. She was being told that her family and the FBI were abandoning her. And she did, in fact, join with them. She robbed three banks. She shot up a street in Los Angeles. She helped plant bombs in several places in Northern California. She had multiple opportunities to escape over a year and a half. She was - she went to the hospital for poison oak, and she could have told the doctor, oh, by the way, I'm Patty Hearst. She didn't escape because she didn't want to escape. She was part of the group.
After she was arrested in September of 1975, she responded rationally then, too. She said, yeah, I don't want to be a part of all this lunacy anymore. I recognize that my family loves me. I recognize that I want to go back to my former life, and that's the position she took at that point.
You know, I don't say any of this in an accusatory way. You know, this is 40 years ago. I'm not trying to convict Patty Hearst. You know, I have no axe to grind in this story. But I think it's a more convincing, clear way to look at the story that she was a rational actor throughout rather than these, you know, basically silly concepts that are imposed by journalists rather than by looking at the actual facts of the case.
GROSS: You end your book expressing that you think it's kind of unfair in a way that she was pardoned because she was given all the privileges of her class, of the power her family had. And make your argument. Let me let you make it.
TOOBIN: Well, keep in mind, she was given a commutation by Jimmy Carter. And then 20 years later, Bill Clinton, on his last day in office, issued her a pardon. So Patty Hearst is the only figure, the only person in American history, to receive a commutation from one president and a pardon from another. If you know anything about the criminal justice system, you know there are lots of people who get locked up because they fell in with a bad group of people and did bad things and made bad decisions. That's true of Patty Hearst. But Patty Hearst got this extraordinary gift. She got two gifts - a commutation from one president and a pardon from another. And if you look at how the campaigns were organized for both of these gestures by her family, by her family's supporters, this was an example of wealth and privilege in action. The fact that she got these two presidential gestures of forgiveness is the purest example of privilege on display that frankly I have ever seen in the criminal justice system.
GROSS: Patricia Hearst did not cooperate with you for your book. She did not give you an interview. Did you expect her to?
TOOBIN: You know, I wasn't sure. But I guess I wasn't surprised that she didn't. You know, Patricia's in her early 60s now. Unfortunately, she's been widowed. Bernie Shaw - she had a long, happy marriage with him. He became the head of security at the Hearst Corporation in New York. She lives in the New York suburbs. She had two daughters. She did, you know, some quirky things.
She was in some John Waters movies. She, you know, wrote a couple books. She's given a lot of interviews over the years, almost exclusively to people who don't know a lot about the facts of her case, so she can sort of control the narrative. But she's moved on.
And she doesn't want to relive this experience and, I think, doesn't want to be questioned about things like the shootout at Mel's Sporting Goods and the death of Myrna Opsahl in the third bank robbery that don't make her look so good.
GROSS: Jeffrey Toobin, it's always great to talk with you. Thank you so much for coming back.
TOOBIN: Thanks, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Jeffrey Toobin speaking to Terry Gross last year. His book about the Patty Hearst kidnapping, crimes and trial is called "American Heiress" and is now out in paperback. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "The Circle," the new movie starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "The Circle," a satirical novel by Dave Eggers, is now a movie, which he co-wrote with director James Ponsoldt, best known for "The End Of The Tour" and "The Spectacular Now." "The Circle" stars Emma Watson as a customer service worker at a giant social media company. It's boss and chief visionary is played by Tom Hanks. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "The Circle" is named for a powerful tech company, Facebook with aspects of Apple and maybe Google. But think Facebook because its hook is community and its principal product, a social interface app called TruYou, T-R-U-Y-O-U. Emma Watson plays Mae, a young, ingenuous woman who lands a low-level but much-coveted job and gazes in wonder at the sunny, invasively social employees on its rolling grounds outside San Francisco.
Dave Eggers adapted his novel along with the director, James Ponsoldt. And they've concocted something that's part satire, part moralistic melodrama. Some of it is broadly acted; some of it's subtle. Much of it, ridiculously overheated. But it has great moments, most early on. It hits its peak with the first appearance of Tom Hanks as Eamon Bailey, the Mark Zuckerberg-Steve Jobs-like guru who walks out on a nearly bare stage and puts on a show that Mae watches with shining eyes. The theme of "The Circle" is transparency versus privacy.
Onstage, Bailey explains that privacy is the enemy, that keeping tabs on everyone will mean dictators can't violate human rights and children will be protected from molesters. He considers keeping secrets a form of lying. He says, knowing is good, but knowing everything is better. His employees go wild, which raises at least two questions - the first, whether that's a tradeoff worth making. Most people would say no, even as they give more information in exchange for convenience. The second is whether Bailey is philosophically sincere or another power-mad monopolist in social reformer's clothing. The best thing about Hanks' performance is he plays the sincerity. And he's Tom Hanks. We want to trust him. If Bailey is acting, he's the best actor on earth. Of course, in the wings, he has a somewhat stereotypical publicity-oriented partner Tom Stenton, played by Patton Oswalt.
The company keeps tabs on everything Mae does - her comings, goings, hobbies, social rating by peers. But there's another watcher, John Boyega as the inventor of TruYou, who roams the buildings like the phantom of The Circle, dropping moral and ethical judgments. Poor Mae is swayed by him. So torn, she goes kayaking in the middle of the night and, in a poorly staged scene, nearly drowns. She's rescued, wouldn't you know, with the help of The Circle's new, omnipresent surveillance system, SeeChange - that's S-E-E. After the rescue footage goes viral, Mae sits with Bailey and Stenton. And the first thing that comes up is the time her friend snuck her into Bailey's office after dark.
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TOM HANKS: (As Eamon Bailey) Tom and I want to talk to you about an idea. But before we do, is there anything you want to tell us?
EMMA WATSON: (As Mae Holland) That I've been here before?
HANKS: (As Eamon Bailey) It's only our lies that get us in trouble, the things we hide. Of course, I know you've been in here before.
HANKS: (As Eamon Bailey) And now that I know your secret, do you feel better or worse?
WATSON: (As Mae Holland) Better. Relieved, actually.
HANKS: (As Eamon Bailey) I am a believer in the perfectibility of human beings. When we are our best selves, the possibilities are endless. There isn't a problem that we cannot solve. We can cure any disease. And we can end hunger and - without secrets, without the hoarding of knowledge and information, we can finally realize our potential.
EDELSTEIN: Quickly, too quickly - scenes must have been cut - Mae becomes The Circle's most flamboyant proselytiser, pushing for less privacy, more surveillance. "The Circle" is a corruption story in which the question is, will she be uncorrupted? Eggers' book goes one way. The movie, the exact opposite, though the ending here is confusing and smacks of desperation. Emma Watson is likeable, but she gives her features quite the workout. She's acting hard. "The Circle" recalls the '50s morality film "A Face In The Crowd" and can also be compared unfavorably to the terrifically scary British TV series "Black Mirror," which finds more imaginative ways to portray our happy surrender to technology.
On a sad note, the late Bill Paxton plays Mae's father who has M.S., and it hurt to watch him. I was already reeling from another death this week, Jonathan Demme, one of our finest directors. He began his career as a publicist. And a key to his greatness was he never entirely relinquished that role. In films as various as "Melvin And Howard," "Stop Making Sense," "Something Wild," "The Silence Of The Lambs" and "Rachel Getting Married," he was the artist-as-promoter, an apostle. He saw his job as showing actors, musicians and political figures in their most brilliant light. He built families of artists and let them take center stage, his own art concealed. We will miss his insistent humanism more than I can say.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein writes for New York magazine.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
Jonathan Demme, whom David just saluted, won an Oscar for directing "Silence Of The Lambs" and also directed "Philadelphia," which starred Tom Hanks as a lawyer with AIDS and won Hanks an Oscar. We'll conclude today's show with a short excerpt from Demme's FRESH AIR interview with contributor Dave Davies from 2009.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: One of the hallmarks of some of your films is shooting scenes where characters look directly into the camera or almost directly into the camera. And I'm wondering, is there a particular reason or purpose for that technique when you use it?
JONATHAN DEMME: Yes. That is - the use of the subjective camera is an idea that's been around in movies for a long, long time. And it's an idea that was seized on very notably by Sam Fuller and by Alfred Hitchcock in two different very kind of - otherwise very different styles of filmmaking. And the whole point according to Hitchcock - and it's right - is that, you know, if you go subjective camera, you are, for that moment, putting the audience in the shoes of the character. You're showing the audience and making the audience share exactly what it's like to see what the character sees.
So Tak Fujimoto and I, when we started getting enough of a budget where we could afford the right lenses - 'cause we started out doing low-budget pictures together - we started experimenting with this subjective camera thing. And we kind of fell in love with the idea of using that as our close-up. Instead of having the camera slightly off to the side, our thing was - well, maybe by using subjective camera in ordinary dialogue situations, you know, we can bring the audience that deeply into the film that way. And we were afraid that it might be kind of off-putting or call attention to itself.
But we found out - "Married To The Mob" was the first time we did it, and nobody commented. The scenes that we used it went really well. No one found fault with it. So when we did "Silence Of The Lambs," we really went to town with it. We just started using subjective camera for every dialogue scene, trying to pull the audience deeply, as deeply as you possibly could, into the scene. So it was really an aggressive way to pursue intense audience involvement.
DAVIES: I wanted to talk just a little bit about "The Silence Of The Lambs," the film. It goes back a few years in your career, 1991, but it swept the Oscars. And I read in an interview at the time that Janet Maslin said that it was your opinion that every director dreams of making a film more terrifying than anything he has ever seen. Is that true, or was that just something you tossed off at the time?
DEMME: Well I'll tell you - what I can tell you is that I know when I saw "Zodiac" and then again when I saw "No Country For Old Men," there was a moment in each of my viewing experiences where I went - dammit, this is scarier than "Silence Of The Lambs."
DEMME: So I guess on a certain level that there's something there, yes.
BIANCULLI: Jonathan Demme died Wednesday at the age of 73.
On the next FRESH AIR, comic W. Kamau Bell. He has a new memoir. And he'll talk about his sometimes awkward childhood, the new season of his CNN series, "United Shades Of America" and the challenges of writing a joke.
W. KAMAU BELL: It's all about analyzing the humor. We're trying to pretend like these jokes come out of thin air. We want jokes to be magic, but it's really math.
BIANCULLI: Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF TALKING HEADS SONG, "ONCE IN A LIFETIME")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONCE IN A LIFETIME")
TALKING HEADS: (Singing) You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack. You may find yourself in another part of the world. You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile. You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife. You may ask yourself - well, how did I get here? Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down. Letting the days go by, water flowing underground. Into the blue again after the money's gone, after the money's gone. Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground. You may ask yourself - how do I work this? You may ask yourself - where is that large automobile? You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house.
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