Within minutes of Johanna Hamilton’s documentary 1971, we are told via intertitle that the film’s subjects—a group of eight anti-war activists who broke into an FBI office and “stole every file”—acted as a kind of proto-Edward Snowden, pre-dating the Pentagon Papers by years and Wikileaks by decades. Their snooping exposed vital information about the Bureau’s illegal covert activities that would shape public opinion about our government as well as the agency’s own actions. Hamilton interviews five of the activists in question (she does not give their last names onscreen, though the Internet is more forthcoming) to reconstruct the events of the night of March 8, 1971, when the ambient noise of the Ali/Frazier “Fight of the Century” provided the soundtrack to one of the most important acts of resistance in the late 20th century. It would eventually facilitate the discovery of the notorious COINTELPRO counterintelligence program and the downfall of J. Edgar Hoover in the public consciousness, and set the precedent for the paranoia, espionage, and mistrust that would define domestic politics throughout the decade and beyond.

And “paranoia” is indeed the right word. Constructed more as a straightforward spy thriller than anything else (a sort of docu-drama Bourne Identity, if you will), 1971 is the story of eight individuals whose lives in the era of Vietnam are defined by mistrust. Calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, these individuals—John and Bonnie (Raines), Keith (Forsyth), Bill (Davidon), and Bob (Williamson)—are plagued with the suspicion that agent provocateurs are infiltrating their protest activities. They thus set out to expose such surveillance, breaking into an office in Media, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, the night of the Fight. In spite of the fact that one of their original nine members has dropped out, potentially threatening the entire operation, and that the locks on the doors seemed to be changed (a plot twist straight out of Hollywood), they sneak in, steal thousands of pages of important FBI papers, and then vanish like shadows in the night.

The waiting game ensues, during which the investigation inches slowly in circles around them. The notorious ninth member, key to their freedom or incarceration, reveals his trepidations about remaining silent, confiding to John—a former university professor whose heavy-lidded eyes, confident baritone, and measured speaking voice make him the film’s de facto narrator—that he may even turn the group in. Bob and Keith participate in the landmark Camden break-in, in which 28 people are arrested in connection with a draft office raid in New Jersey, only to be acquitted by a jury in an obvious referendum on the Vietnam War. In a true spy thriller twist, the Xerox company is able to use the distinct markings left by photocopiers to identify exactly which machines were used to make the copies the group sent to the media (with only the Washington Post daring to publish). But despite the close calls, in spite of the intrigue, they remain undiscovered, unconvicted, and free. The case goes all the way to Congress, discrediting the FBI and temporarily interrupting the covert activities of the U.S. government on domestic soil.

Hamilton chooses mostly to stage the film two ways: one, as a straightforward thriller, point-by-point, moment-by-moment, taking great care to indulge in the minute details of the break-in with very little in the way of group dynamics or politics beyond the larger issue of immoral surveillance; and two, as a mixed-form documentary, using staged, fictionalized sequences of the break-in and its planning stages as more than simply Ken Burns-style reenactments, but a distinct blending of formal styles, one that subtly blurs the aesthetic distinction between documentary film and fiction.

But her decisions have their limitations. When the film does edge into territory beyond simply the purview of an espionage narrative—territory mostly marginalized for the sake of the story—it ends up being often far more interesting than the thriller itself ever is. Bonnie makes brief mention of her role as “den mother,” responsible for cooking and playing the role of secretary during the group’s meetings at the Raines house, a sexist position that she, as the only woman in the group, feels, forced into. Bob talks freely at the end of the film of his shift toward a more conservative pole as life goes on, one that results directly from his role as a potential felon during the Camden trial. And very little is made of the essentially subject ethics of committing domestic espionage in order to protest domestic espionage, a defensible position that nonetheless hovers over the film, unaddressed except perhaps by platitudes (just a few of a great many 1971 has to offer) that the Media burglars were doing what needed to be done. All, when present, establish a more compelling, nuanced politic than simply Hamilton’s (admittedly strong) anti-FBI didactics; even the Snowden/Wikileaks connection, which gives the film great modern-day heft, is mostly left unaddressed. And it’s not as if there’s not room to spare in the final product: at a swift 80 minutes, the film feels brief and light, something for Netflix where it rightly attempts a Hearts And Minds-esque cultural gravity.

The film’s blurring of genre lines also feels half-formed. The only scenes that utilize the intriguing reenactment-like fictionalizations are those devoted to the break-in itself; everything before and after is far too straightforward documentary. And even in those sequences, dialogue and sound are suppressed in favor of rather generic mood-heavy music and incessant voice-over from the film’s interview subjects, an especially poor choice considering how important the sound of the Ali/Frazier fight is to the success of the mission. 1971 suffers from an unfortunate bout of Talking Head Syndrome, wherein the only narrative tool Hamilton can seem to hedge her efforts on is narration, and interviewees constantly hold the viewer’s hand through sequences that are not visually constructed in any meaningful way and that cannot be separated from the nonstop talking. 1971 is thus something that is listened to more than it is watched, especially as the brisk pace makes it nearly impossible to process most of the sources and documents onscreen with the naked, which makes it more like a radio program than a film. Interesting, sometimes compelling, but not exactly good cinema.

1971 opens the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival Thursday, September 25, 7 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre. It also screens Saturday, September 27, 1:45 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre.

Dir: Johanna Hamilton | 80 min. | 2014 | USA

About The Author

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Steven Franz is a former A.V. Club Milwaukee contributor. As a member of the UWM Post editorial board, he helped guide that publication into oblivion. He was born and raised in Milwaukee. He hates everything except for the things he likes.