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1971: Documentary reveals story behind first WikiLeaks-type scandal

1971 film documentary posterIt’s easy to see why the story of 1971 was an appealing one in the current climate: no-one can deny its relevancy. Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks are two instances of modern history being shaped before our eyes, but it’s a story that took place around 40 years prior which kicked-off a preceding debate over privacy and personal security. 

Johanna Hamilton – known for producing – debuts her writing (along with Gabriel Rhodes) and directing credentials, offering up a thriller-like tale recounted through a mixture of interviews, archive footage and transitory reconstructions. The events concern the town of Media, Philadelphia where, on 8 March 1971, eight ordinary individuals took it upon themselves to break into FBI offices to steal and release every document found.

The burglars were never caught and hadn’t – until now – ever publically revealed themselves. Most of them speak about the incident itself, as well as the events that led to it and the repercussions that it brought. We’re introduced to the context of the era: McCarthyism, riots and the war in Vietnam. As a result, this group are brought together by their eventual leader Bill – a university professor and perhaps the staunchest activist of the lot – to pull off this daring heist.

The documentary additionally covers some of the crucial information surrounding the preparations and the accompanying worries of the participants. We see a mock-interview staged in order to gain prior access to the layout of the to-be-infringed location, and select participants voice their concerns over other members of the team, specifically the 9th member.

Though no outsider was aware of the plans, this person – who would drop out prior to the execution of the crime – had information about the other eight, and it caused a certain amount of tension and anxiety within the group. It leads on to worries over what would happen in the event of their getting caught, and it’s at this point where the issue of prison-time rears its head. This was a particularly pressing concern for the couple and parents of the group, Bonnie and John, who talk about their fears in relation to the futures of their children.

This was ultimately hypothetical as the heist would go off without a hitch and the files would be presented to the Washington Post (amongst others) on a silver platter. After discussions over the legality and morality surrounding such a leak, the Post would make history by revealing the information and running with the story on page one, paving the way for such coverage in the event of further high-profile political scandals, i.e. Watergate.

The files would reveal illegal, prejudiced activity that centred on groups promoting women’s or black people’s rights, anti-war efforts or those who hinted at radical views in institutions such as colleges and universities. This would lead to intense scrutiny of the FBI and of J. Edgar Hoover resulting in 1975 in the first-ever congressional investigation into US intelligence agencies.

This is a damning verdict and an astonishing turn of events no doubt. The story is as sensational as it is true. And the documentary, if it’s providing a brief retelling or introduction into these events, does a fine job. But the problem it has doesn’t concern what’s included, but rather what’s left out. It reads like a History Channel overview, rather than an emotionally-compelling insight which you might find elsewhere in equally-engrossing tales.

The potential crux of the doc could be one of many things. But the most obvious, the one which retains the biggest impact, and is in fact revisited towards the end of the documentary, is the idea of the parents possibly “abandoning” their children for a supposed greater good. How far should you go and which lines are you prepared to cross?

However, this isn’t explored in any great detail. All of these issues are indeed presented but end up being glossed over. There are a number of perhaps unanswerable questions which nevertheless have the capacity to provoke intelligent and fascinating debate, yet they remain not only unanswered but, for the most part, uninvestigated.

The production aspects of the documentary are done well – it moves at a pace, the recreated footage is snappy (and helps tell the story) and it remains compelling throughout. As a historical guide-to, it’s a slender 75-minute look at the events in media in 1971 which ticks all the boxes. But to use the real-life happenings as an analogy, 1971 is akin to publishing the documents for the world to see. What it lacks, unfortunately, is the accompanying editorial follow-through.


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24-year-old Welsh film writer with a particular fondness for documentaries. Studied Film Studies with Screenwriting in Sheffield and still there, now working in media. Hopes to forge a career either writing about film or working in the film festival industry. Loves Kevin Spacey... likes Almodovar, Chris Nolan, Pixar and Ghibli.

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