1971July 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.



About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on July 2, 2016, in Documentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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