“They risked everything…”
The transition from the bright eyed American optimism of the 1960’s to the oblique gaze inspired by the tumult of the early 1970’s is something cinema seems fascinated recently. Early in the documentary film 1971, co-conspirator John Raines mentions how everything changed in ’68, with the outset of the Vietnam War and the murders of both Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy. The tone of the country shifted in those years as it became apparent that the government was not operating in the best interest of its citizens. And with this realization came the need for action against that system. 1971 tells the story of 8 people who worked together and risked everything to do just that.
1971 more specifically tells the story of the Media, Pennsylvania FBI leaks from the perspective of the actual group of protesters who broke in and stole the documents. I was not familiar with the plot of “Medburg”, as it’s referred to in secret FBI documents, or the “Citizens’ Commission To Investigate The FBI” as it was called by the group, before seeing this documentary . And after seeing it I’m kind of floored by that. This particular group of people had such a profound effect on the oversight reform of the FBI, changing the lives of pretty much every American who lived between the years 1975 and 2001.
So what did they do exactly? Well this group of 8 people essentially pioneered the same style of leaks that would be repeated in Watergate and then years later by Wiki-leaks and Edward Snowden. They meticulously planned a way to break into one of the now defunct FBI satellite offices in Pennsylvania and pillage every filing cabinet full of documents. They then mailed a set, which described illegal surveillance of non violent American citizens all over the country, to The NY Times, The LA Times, and The Washington Post (only the Post would go to press with the information).
Directed by Johanna Hamilton, 1971 uses a combination of archival footage, face to face interviews, dramatizations, and Ken Burns effect photographs. The interviews are Hamilton’s strongest asset, mostly because until the time of this film’s release none of those involved had ever been identified as the culprits. The group, specifically married couple John & Bonnie Raines, inject such a brilliance into their memories of the events that they bring the story to life. This almost completely negates the need for the dramatizations — which at times throw off the seriousness of the subject matter. Luckily, this story is so compelling and eye opening that it doesn’t negatively impact the film.
1971 is equal parts informative and exciting — a perfect blend that many documentaries struggle to achieve. The film pulls you in with its espionage tone in the first half, and then drops your jaw with the second half by exploring the massive reform effects of the Media, PA leaks. The film leaves you feeling inspired by these people who put everything on the line in the name of true American principles. Late in the film when John Raines is asked how he could risk losing his three children for life, he simply answers “If all of us did what we thought was safe, then the people who want to take our government away would be safe… we would not be safe.” Fortunately for him, no one in the group ever said a word — fortunately for us, people like this come along to correct the course of history every now and then.