It was the night of the "Fight of the Century," March 8, 1971 - Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier going 15 rounds in Madison Square Garden, millions hunkered in front of TVs and radios. But not eight young activists in Media, just outside Philadelphia. This group of college-age kids, a professor, young parents were picking locks and rifling file cabinets at a regional office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
More than a thousand documents were stolen, and over the following days and weeks, the self-appointed Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI sent copies to newspapers, to members of Congress.
The files proved what many on the left had long claimed: Agents were spying on antiwar protesters and civil rights leaders, running stealth intimidation and infiltration operations, playing "dirty tricks" on feminist groups, black activists, students against the Vietnam War.
Betty Medsger, a reporter at the Washington Post, had the story, and after intense newsroom deliberations - was it right, was it legal, to publish stolen government files? - the article was published March 24, 1971. Before Watergate, before the Pentagon Papers, decades before Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, a precedent was set.
Johanna Hamilton's riveting, revelatory documentary 1971 catches up with some of the principals involved in the break-in: Bonnie and John Raines, then a couple with three small children; Keith Forsyth, a cabbie who took a correspondence course on locksmithing; Bob Williamson, a social worker. They talk on camera for the first time about how they plotted and staged the break-in, how they eluded a massive FBI manhunt, how the night changed their lives.
Medsger, whose book The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI provided the template for Hamilton's film, recalls the eleventh-hour drama behind publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee's decision to run the article.
Archival footage, home movies, and news coverage (peace marches, police confrontations, Senate hearings, campus shootings) are crisply interwoven with talking-head interviews. Hamilton stages reenactments of the planning and execution of the historic break-and-enter, which are both thrilling and surprisingly comical at times. Presenting herself as a Swarthmore student interested in a career with the agency, Bonnie Raines - using a fake name and phony glasses - is interviewed by an agent in the Media field office. She takes a look around, turns "the wrong way" down a hall to scout adjacent rooms, checks the locks on the doors, the layout.
Movies have been made about young radicals and what happens to them - and their convictions - as they grow up, and older, and assimilate into the mainstream. Most recent among them was Robert Redford's The Company You Keep. Running on Empty, released in 1988, showed a couple of Vietnam-era undergrounders still hiding from the law, with reluctant teens in tow. Oliver Stone is in the midst of making a dramatized account of the Snowden affair with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the NSA whistle-blower. (Laura Poitras, director of the Oscar-winning Snowden doc Citizenfour, is a co-executive producer on 1971.)
But there's nothing like the real kids - now, of course anything but kids - who broke the law for a cause they believed in. 1971 is a testament to a generation's idealism, heroism, foolhardiness, fearlessness. It's ancient times, but in many ways, as revelations about illegal government surveillance of its citizens keep coming, there's nothing nostalgic about this movie at all.
1971 ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Johanna Hamilton. With Bonnie Raines, John Raines, Keith Forsyth, Bob Williamson, Betty Medsger, David Kairys. Distributed
by the Film Collaborative.
Running time: 1 hour, 19 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult themes).
Playing at: Bryn Mawr Film Institute. EndText