Not unlike how Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour was content, largely, to function as a complementary text to the trove of NSA documents made public by Edward Snowden in June 2013, Johanna Hamilton’s 1971 represents a mind-blowing scoop disguised as a fairly garden-variety issue doc. The film, which claims Poitras as an executive producer, is composed of interviews with five of the eight people involved in a 1971 break-in, whereby an anonymous group calling itself the “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the F.B.I.” stole a plethora of classified documents from the bureau’s office in Media, Pennsylvania. The worst internal dossiers were then leaked to the press, publicly exposing the F.B.I.’s COINTELPRO tactics, taken against victims ranging all the way from local pothead circles to influential academics to Martin Luther King Jr. In contextualizing the story, Hamilton doesn’t rush the exposition (her interviewees clarify the clashes within rank of what the F.B.I. referred to as the “New Left” and the personal pressures that brought each of them to the point of rebellion) or, as the de facto team leader John Raines put it, transitioning from “nonviolent protest to nonviolent disruption.”
Perhaps to boost runtime, Hamilton indulges in some well-intentioned but nonetheless hoary reenactment scenes, which are too plot-heavy to be purely expressionistic, and yet too scant (and, it must be said, badly acted) to grip as a parallel narrative. But these are a mere distraction at worst. 1971 doesn’t indulge in faux-thrillerism, trying to make the burglary look any tougher or smoother in hindsight than it actually was; everything that appears on screen is dictated by what Hamilton’s interviewees are willing to volunteer. (In one scene, hippie activist lockpick Keith Forsyth recalls using his crowbar to pry into the F.B.I. office—but, hearing the legendary Ali-Frazier fight from the building manager’s television set downstairs, needing to wait until a swell of cheers from the fight’s audience with which to blanket the sound of the door being popped open.) The film is less interested in the night of the break-in than the people who made it happen, and the resultant shockwaves in public policy (including J. Edgar Hoover’s official cancellation of COINTELPRO, for whatever that was worth) remain filtered through their reminiscences.
On that score, 1971 is one of the only recent docs on Vietnam-era activism to engage the question of time from a practical, middle-class American perspective, shorn of easy diagnoses or three-step solutions. Participant Bob Williamson—hired by Raines, he claims, as “comic relief”—marvels at how much more conservative he’s become in the intervening 43 years, but fails to give specifics. Following the nullification-by-trial of charges against an overlapping group of draft-board raiders known as the Camden 28, which included Williamson and Forsyth, one is left with a queasy appreciation for the potential restitutive power of the judiciary. Hamilton doesn’t rub the audience’s noses in the dirt of the U.S. government’s subsequent, expanded mission creep, and her participants—who, to their credit, were never caught by the bureau—are quick to disavow changing American history forever, or to wag their fingers at the current generation’s activism. They discuss theirs as it’s dimmed in favor of family and work, giving the impetus to form the original Commission a curious, vigilantist time-capsule quality. The questions 1971 proposes—about the government’s capacity for surveillance and harassment, and the impact one person can, in fact, have in protest—remain wide open.