Joanna Hamilton’s well-constructed documentary “1971” showcases ordinary people who broke into a local FBI office, stole all the files and published them, thereby revealing to the unsuspecting American public the shocking illegal practices of J. Edgar Hoover’s agency. Despite an intensive five-year manhunt, the whistleblowers were never caught: “This,” to quote the film, “is their story.” Told through interviews with five of those involved, copious archival footage and detailed re-enactments of the political heist, the film offers surprisingly cogent, lived-in evocations of a period too often glossed over in impersonal, by-the-book montages. Forty-three years later, “1971” merits an arthouse run.
With the aid of historical artifacts and the memories of her protagonists, Hamilton vividly sets the scene. Nowadays, with global atrocities, governmental malfeasance and miscarriages of justice filling the news daily, it may be hard to grasp the profound impact of the late ’60s on a prosperous, complacent nation hitherto sure of its moral high ground. As one of the five highlighted activists recalls, 1968 alone brought the Tet offensive, the My Lai massacre and the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Sentiment against the Vietnam War was running high, and the country was seemingly spinning out of control.
Most civil disobedience was aimed at disrupting the war by breaking into draft boards and destroying files (cut to Father Daniel Berrigan setting fire to a pile of documents). But anti-war activists Bill Davidon, Keith Forsyth, Bob Williamson, Bonnie and John Raines, and their three unfilmed cohorts became increasingly aware of a threat from within. Poorly disguised government types with cameras proliferated. FBI agents provocateurs (or, in Forsyth’s words, “guys with crew cuts, wing tips and tie-dyed T-shirts yelling ‘Kill the pigs!’”) were suspected of heavily infiltrating anti-war rallies. For the group that soon dubbed itself the “Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI,” it was as important to end the agency’s active suppression of dissent as it was to end the war itself.
Hamilton spends considerable time re-creating the break-in at the FBI office in Media, Penn., on March 8, 1971, the night of the epic Ali-Frazier fight. As the amateur burglars recall their thoughts, deeds and emotions, actors play out the robbery in all its nail-biting suspense. Once safely away, the thieves are shown carefully sifting through the documents, astonished by the mountainous proof of indefensible FBI activities therein.
Hamilton summons talking-head historians and newsreel clips to describe the unprecedented power held by Hoover, who was feared by Congressmen and presidents alike. Hamilton also slips in an excerpt from the immensely popular FBI TV series showing fearless agents defusing a bomb to illustrate the respect with which the agency was viewed by the general public. This context may explain why the two left-wing Congressmen, and two of the three major newspapers to whom the files were sent, elected to return everything to the FBI. Only the Washington Post, after much debate, published — whereupon the rest of the media jumped on the bandwagon, as seen in a montage of broadcasts and headlines expressing outrage at what the files revealed.
The raid’s aftermath proved nerve-wracking for the perpetrators, who feared decades in jail. But for the left in general, the sight of hordes of easily identifiable “undercover” agents vainly combing student neighborhoods for those responsible afforded a gleeful spectacle (Hamilton includes footage of a joyous FBI-mocking fair in a community hit hard by invading fake hippies). On the larger stage, the break-in indirectly led to the Church Committee (excerpted here), the first Congressional investigation of an American intelligence agency. As one of the whistleblowers wryly admits, ultimately the raid would produce unexpectedly ambivalent results: a greater political awareness and desire for government accountability on the one hand, and the destruction of public belief in government on the other.