In 1971 – on March 8th -the self-titled ‘Citizens Committee To Investigate The FBI’ broke into FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania, stole thousands of documents and leaked them to the press in an effort not dissimilar to modern icons of freedom of information, like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Their actions lifted the lid on many suppressive, immoral and in many cases illegal activities, including the infiltration, surveillance and interference of anti-war efforts, women’s-liberation groups and black-power movements – and, most pertinently, the Counter Intelligence Program, COINTEL-PRO.
Great credit should go to director and producer Johanna Hamilton for compiling this fascinating story and presenting it in the form of interviews, compelling photographs, re-enacted scenes and stock footage. But perhaps her biggest achievement with 1971 was simply to get the perpetrators of Media in front of the camera to talk about that fateful year – a year fuelled so vociferously by the protests against the Vietnam war; the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy; the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre.
The story, fit for any political thriller of the cinematic persuasion, was already at Hamilton’s feet. But portraying that information in a way that still provokes a palpable sense of fear and dread is a commendable feat. Scenes in which actors re-enact the daring feats of those eight political freedom fighters feel tense and meaningful, even though the outcome was relatively clear by virtue of the people narrating them.
These eight activists – our protagonists if you will – were never caught despite a huge operation solicited by J. Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and head honcho until his death in 1972. This comprises the most enjoyable portion of the documentary, as details of the FBI’s widespread but ultimately doomed inquiries are illuminated in some detail. Bonnie, who infiltrated the FBI office in Media by posing as a student writing a report on female opportunities in the Bureau, was the only person not named officially in their investigation, despite staking it out for the eventual heist.
At a whisker under two hours, 1971 is certainly packed with fascinating content. But one of its stronger points is its humanistic quality. Not only has Hamilton pieced together the gripping, true-to-life story, but in humanising this act of political rebellion, the documentary touches upon the very real risks the subjects were taking. At one point, Bonnie explains feeling marginalised from the group’s effort when she was unofficially cast in the role of ‘den mother’. In another scene, the group’s lock picker speaks of being in his early twenties and discovering what responsibility felt like. It’s not overbearing nor is it shoehorned; it simply imbues a sense of attachment to our ‘characters’, which in turn amplifies the sense of their achievements.
Whenever 1971 seems to be reaching a crescendo; when the actions of The Citizens Committee To Investigate The FBI look to have reached their consequential end, a new and unanticipated result of their activities unfolds. In daring to challenge the law by actually challenging the law itself, this band of non-violent activists set about unprecedented – albeit temporary – changes to both congressional practice and public cynicism.
Whether you garner political morsels from Mad Men or extensively study American’s modern history, 1971 is a beautifully constructed, meticulous account of the break-in to an FBI office that no one will be able to walk away from without the irrepressible urge to question the powers that be, especially in light of the current revelations surrounding government surveillance.