This is your FBI
1971 , documentary, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
On March 8, 1971, on a night when much of America was glued to its radios and televisions for the showdown between two undefeated heavyweight champions, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, a team of anti-war activists broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania, and took every last file. It was a small-time criminal enterprise undertaken to shed a cleansing light on the huge criminal enterprise that was J. Edgar Hoover’s secret FBI.
The burglary gave Hoover fits, and nabbing the culprits immediately became his obsessive priority. Capture would have meant decades of jail time. But the Media burglars were never caught, the files were copied and distributed to selected members of the press and a few other key parties, and Hoover’s hermetically sealed empire was blown irreparably open.
For most of the recipients of this trove of intelligence contraband, including The New York Times and future presidential candidate Sen. George McGovern, the material was too hot to handle, and they turned it right back over to the FBI. But Betty Medsger, a journalist who had done some reporting on the protest movement, took the material to her editors at The Washington Post , and after a tense debate the Post ran the story. A year ago, Medsger published The Burglary , a riveting account of that decades-old break-in and its consequences. Her book was made possible by the decision of some of the participants, now well clear of the statute of limitations, to divulge their secret.
Johanna Hamilton, a TV documentary producer making her directorial debut, has now brought that story to the screen, using a combination of archival-news footage, home-movie clips, still photographs, talking-head interviews, and staged reenactments of the plotting and break-in. The mixture is effective, although suspense is hard to maintain when you’ve opened the proceedings with title cards telling how things turned out. But it’s a revealing portrait of an era when America’s default attitude was that government was honorable, and that the FBI was run by Efrem Zimbalist Jr.
The interviews include present-day talks with ringleader Bill Davidon and co-conspirators Bonnie and John Raines, Keith Forsyth, and Bob Williamson. Three other participants declined to come forward. Hamilton also talks with Medsger and former NBC correspondent Carl Stern, who discovered in the documents the existence of a secret and illegal FBI dirty-tricks program called COINTELPRO, aimed at groups as diverse as Womens Lib and the Black Panthers, with special venom leveled at Martin Luther King Jr. It all led to the Senate’s Church Committee investigation of intelligence abuses and a curtailment of the power of the FBI.
There has been a recent batch of movies, both documentary (Freida Lee Mock’s Anita and Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour ) and feature (Ava Duvernay’s Selma ), that have rattled the cage of government power and overreach. 1971 deserves a seat at that table.
Have you ever seen the Raines? John, Bonnie, and children in 1969