On March 8th, 1971, the Citizens Committee To Investigate The FBI convened to break into FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania. The result, as the new documentary “1971” dares to argue, is a significant, but temporary shift in an ongoing struggle between the general public and the government, one that has raged since war overseas has dared society to question their very own neighbors. The film doesn’t bother to hold your hand: if you’re an American willing to place blind faith in your elected officials and anyone with a badge, you’re not going to cotton to what this film has to show you.
What “1971” uncovers is the actual identities of those involved with the Citizens Committee, or at least a couple of them who don’t mind coming forth and becoming the face of a loaded investigation. Director Johanna Hamilton should be credited for getting these faces in front of the camera, to humanize political rebellion of an early era not as some sepia-toned memory, but as a story of very human individuals.
The details are almost too straightforward to be true: this was a group of like-minded friends who researched FBI offices and found the one with the least security, located in Media. On the night where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were locked in battle for the heavyweight championship, they entered the offices and procured all their top secret files. The most pessimistic of them acknowledged that there was a good chance these papers would tell them nothing.
What followed was the discovery, and the leak, of major criminal activities being enacted by the Bureau. Under J. Edgar Hoover, the organization had infiltrated major organizations seeking to define the “new left,” stirring dissent amongst these groups. Sometimes, these were political organizations, though sometimes they were woman’s lib groups, or boy scout troops. Decades before WikiLeaks, the public would suddenly learn to distrust their government.
While tiptoeing around dangerous material (brief wordless dramatizations depict the group convening despite a couple of identities remaining secret), Hamilton relies on warm first-hand accounts to portray the aftermath. Seeds of discontent were sown within the public, but Hamilton is more interested in members of the group hiding in plain sight along the East Coast. Suddenly, small towns became a hotbed of undercover FBI activity. In Media, citizens acted out in broad daylight, mocking the fugazi hippies in their midst with freshly grown mustaches and manufactured anti-war slogans. The crimes were considerable, but gentle mockery flummoxed the offices of the Bureau.
The debate is worth having: does the film depict a moment in political engagement that no longer exists? The idea of the government phone-tapping progressive students seems almost quaint when we live in a society where surveillance is a natural way of life. Even one of the speakers interviewed shrugs when they admit, “It’s the nature of the government” to spy on and interrogate their citizens. Early clips of the old serialized “FBI” television series are shown, allowing us to draw our own real-life parallel: there’s not much different between the ticking-bomb clip seen here and any moment in 9/11-era “24” when Kiefer Sutherland‘s Jack Bauer violates a perp’s civil rights.
The historical elements and stock footage in “1971” provides context, an interesting contrast with the talking heads themselves, all of whom are living out far less radicalized existences in old age. The way a couple of them discuss joining the Camden 28, a group busted for a similar FBI robbery, is not unlike someone addressing the pros and cons of dropping out of a band and stepping into a new one. One of their sons speaks out about how, when they heard the stories, they seemed like a “spy” fantasy, and their reaction was one of incredulity. After all, living in our current society, is it at all believable that, at one time, were concerned citizens wary of the government encroaching on our privacy? Remember when the Patriot Act was the sort of idea that terrified concerned people enough to take action?
Hamilton’s directing style is ultimately straightforward and avoids getting too involved in the story. Such an approach is a subtle call to arms, with the film ultimately punctuated by an on-text crawl talking about the Patriot Act. Her film is not celebratory, lingering on the notion that, with the public charade of COINTELPRO, ultimately the FBI won. While their post-break-in behaviors are mocked, the government credits itself with tactics specifically utilized to “enhance the paranoia,” creating a culture of fear that still exists today. Hamilton announces the immediacy right off the bat: “1971” could have been any year. “1971” should be every year. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.