July 2, 2016. I was nicely surprised recently when I signed onto Netflix to discover that Netflix is now streaming a documentary called “1971.” I first saw “1971” at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014, and have been trying to find it ever since.
“1971” is a fascinating pre-cursor to the times in which we live. The US government spying on its citizens? Today, in the age of hi-tech leaks involving Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Wikileaks, not to mention Edward Snowden, this question sounds like a story out of current headlines. However, as my late father would have said, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
In 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, in the town of Media Pennsylvania, a group of eight citizens, calling themselves “The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI,” broke into the local FBI office, stole secret files and distributed them to reporters and politicians. One of the members of “The “Citizens…” describes the act as a “transition from non-violent protest to non-violent interruption.” “In 1971, government secrets were on hard copy only. If you disrupted the paper, you disrupted the system, another of “The Citizens…” points out.
To help their scheme come off, the break in was done on the night of the famous Ali – Frazer boxing match, March 8, 1971. The thinking was that anyone who might catch them in the act would be too distracted, watching the fight. “It was empowering to know that ordinary people could be smarter than the police and take action,” a member of “The Citizens…” recalls.
“The Citizens…” uncovered evidence of a top secret civilian surveillance program run by then FBI Head, J. Edgar Hoover. The members of “The Citizens…” were never caught. Only now, in this documentary, do they come forward to discuss the motivations for their actions and describe how the break in was handled.
The discovery, and subsequent release of information to newspapers, changed the course of government surveillance…at least for a while. Some of the stories uncovered were the stuff of paranoid fiction. One document revealed that the FBI sent agents to infiltrate a boy scout troop in Oregon because it has been corresponding with a boy scout troop behind the Iron Curtain. While this is a humorous example, the revelations become much more serious.
Reacting to the information contained in the release of these files, Senator George McGovern declared that, “The Federal Bureau of Investigation has become The Federal Bureau of Intimidation.”
Certainly Daniel Ellsberg engaged in a similar action with his copying and distribution of “The Pentagon Papers.” There is a terrific documentary about Ellsberg as well, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” (2009) to which I consider “1971” to be a companion piece. “1971” concerns an event that actually happened three months before “The New York Times” began printing “The Pentagon Papers,” but one that may not be as well remembered as “The Pentagon Papers.”
Director Johanna Hamilton has chosen to tell the majority of the story of “1971” through present day interviews with the, now older, members of “The Citizens Commission…” To illustrate their stories, Hamilton has filmed re-enactments of the events leading up to the break in, as well as the break in itself. These, very effective and well staged, re-enactments are juxtaposed against the recollections of the members of “The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI.”
“1971” also concerns the aftermath of the revelations (too numerous to detail here), how they effected the FBI, the government and the newspapers that had to struggle with the ethical issue of whether or not to publish stolen government files, something which, the documentary claims, was a pre-courser to Watergate.
Director Hamilton and editor Gabriel Rhodes have created compelling narrative, which seamlessly blends not only present day interviews with re-enactments, but also utilizes stock footage and historical footage to tell this incredible, true story. The result is a documentary that is informative, suspenseful, captivating and very relevant.
Posted on July 2, 2016, in Documentary and tagged 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, Gabriel Rhodes, J. Edgar Hoover, Johanna Hamilton, Media Pennsylvania, Senator George McGovern, The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, The New York Times, The Pentagon Papers, Tribeca Film Festival 2014, Watergate. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.