In 1971, eight activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole every file, earning them the name Media Eight (though they preferred to go by the less punchy Citizens’ Committee to Investigate the FBI), and it wasn’t until 2014 that any of their identities were revealed, sparking the production of this film, in which present-day interviews with the members of the Eight are interspersed with reconstruction footage in a docudrama style.
The modern-day interviews are compelling, but the 1971 stuff could have been done better. It’s just a bit cheap, a bit stiff, a bit television-y. That televisual feeling can often pervade documentaries, and it takes a rare skill to make a documentary film feel like a blockbuster. This one could probably have done with telling the story using more archive footage of Nixon and peace rallies rather than reconstructions, because without the budget of J. Edgar the period scenes are just drab.
Still, what the film does really well is create a sense of the period, a time when Marxists and feminists and black nationalists shared an agenda, before the left was factionalised by radicalisation, liberalisation, and mutual suspicion. There’s a feeling that 1971 sums up the state of the nation at the time, weaving Vietnam and Muhammad Ali’s Fight of the Century against Joe Frazier into a sort of loose epic whose final act is the public revelation of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s massive programme of surveillance on radical subversives such as the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, the American Indian Movement, Martin Luther King, Jane Fonda, John and Yoko, women’s libbers, and Ernest Hemingway (in all fairness I have to add that they did go after some far-right groups too, including the Ku Klux Klan, but still it was widely seen as an anti-New Left operation). COINTELPRO’s chief inspector was W. Mark Felt who would go on to play Deep Throat in the Watergate scandal, and there’s a pleasing irony to Nixon’s having been brought down by the same underhanded methods whose use he authorised.
The great figures of this story – Nixon and Hoover – are hardly a presence, but they cast long shadows. It’s a technique that works, keeping the story rooted. We are, after all, in Media, PA, not New York or Washington, D.C., and there’s a pleasantly ordinary feel to the story despite its weighty themes. The Media Eight are just nice, normal people, not radicals or militants. They’re likeable, especially in interviews, and some of them come across a little baffled by their own ballsiness, even to this day.
Of course, some may complain that 1971 deliberately casts the Media Eight as the goodies and the FBI as the baddies, but if the film has an agenda then it is the exploration of how ordinary people do extraordinary things, and why. On that score it never quite settles itself, but it’s an intriguing story that will stay with you.
So what do you think about 1971? Does it stoke your interest? If so then click here to book your ticket at the Curzon cinema between the 5th and the 11th. ALso be sure to visit Christian’s site Mediocre Batman!