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AFI Docs Review: “1971”

Johanna Hamilton’s documentary introduces for the first time the political activists behind the infamous 1971 raid on an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania.

Image courtesy of AFI Docs.

On March 8, 1971, a group of eight political activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and removed every file from the room. The documents contained evidence of the federal government’s secret efforts to spy on its own people—a revelation that, when it became public, led to the first-ever Congressional investigation into an American intelligence agency. 

The activists were never caught.

Now, 43 years later, the men and women who carried out the crime—the self-titled Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI—have publicly revealed themselves for the first time in director Johanna Hamilton’s fine new documentary, 1971. The film explores the planning, execution, and impact of the Media break-in from the perspective of the activists: the university professor who led the group, the wife and mother who posed as a journalist to case the inside of the office, and the college dropout who picked the locks. The fast-paced plot unfolds dramatically and brings the viewer face to face with a question that has never been more important than it is today: What risks are worth taking in order to expose abuse of government power?

Back in 1971, the American public was largely unaware of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s sweeping efforts to surveil and intimidate citizens. But the documents stolen from the office in Media led to public disclosures about COINTELPRO, a secret FBI counter-intelligence program that targeted the American Indian movement, the Black Panthers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., anti-Vietnam War activists, and many other law-abiding citizens. The impact of the disclosures was far-reaching, but so were the risks taken by the activists. 

Among the activists was a married couple who had three children; had they been apprehended, the couple’s children would have grown up parentless. By exploring the ideals that motivate otherwise ordinary men and women to make these profound decisions, the film offers an unique window into why contemporary figures such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have taken similar risks. 

Hamilton’s film is a compelling documentary that provides a powerful perspective on the current debate about the men and women who risk everything to disclose government secrets.

Screening Thursday, June 19, 7:30 PM at the National Portrait Gallery, and Saturday, June 21, 11:15 AM at AFI Silver Theatre.

Return to AFI Docs page

Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.