1971 Documentary Review Essays

Joanna Hamilton’s well-constructed documentary “1971” showcases ordinary people who broke into a local FBI office, stole all the files and published them, thereby revealing to the unsuspecting American public the shocking illegal practices of J. Edgar Hoover’s agency. Despite an intensive five-year manhunt, the whistleblowers were never caught: “This,” to quote the film, “is their story.” Told through interviews with five of those involved, copious archival footage and detailed re-enactments of the political heist, the film offers surprisingly cogent, lived-in evocations of a period too often glossed over in impersonal, by-the-book montages. Forty-three years later, “1971” merits an arthouse run.

With the aid of historical artifacts and the memories of her protagonists, Hamilton vividly sets the scene. Nowadays, with global atrocities, governmental malfeasance and miscarriages of justice filling the news daily, it may be hard to grasp the profound impact of the late ’60s on a prosperous, complacent nation hitherto sure of its moral high ground. As one of the five highlighted activists recalls, 1968 alone brought the Tet offensive, the My Lai massacre and the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Sentiment against the Vietnam War was running high, and the country was seemingly spinning out of control.

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Most civil disobedience was aimed at disrupting the war by breaking into draft boards and destroying files (cut to Father Daniel Berrigan setting fire to a pile of documents). But anti-war activists Bill Davidon, Keith Forsyth, Bob Williamson, Bonnie and John Raines, and their three unfilmed cohorts became increasingly aware of a threat from within. Poorly disguised government types with cameras proliferated. FBI agents provocateurs (or, in Forsyth’s words, “guys with crew cuts, wing tips and tie-dyed T-shirts yelling ‘Kill the pigs!’”) were suspected of heavily infiltrating anti-war rallies. For the group that soon dubbed itself the “Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI,” it was as important to end the agency’s active suppression of dissent as it was to end the war itself.

Hamilton spends considerable time re-creating the break-in at the FBI office in Media, Penn., on March 8, 1971, the night of the epic Ali-Frazier fight. As the amateur burglars recall their thoughts, deeds and emotions, actors play out the robbery in all its nail-biting suspense. Once safely away, the thieves are shown carefully sifting through the documents, astonished by the mountainous proof of indefensible FBI activities therein.

Hamilton summons talking-head historians and newsreel clips to describe the unprecedented power held by Hoover, who was feared by Congressmen and presidents alike. Hamilton also slips in an excerpt from the immensely popular FBI TV series showing fearless agents defusing a bomb to illustrate the respect with which the agency was viewed by the general public. This context may explain why the two left-wing Congressmen, and two of the three major newspapers to whom the files were sent, elected to return everything to the FBI. Only the Washington Post, after much debate, published — whereupon the rest of the media jumped on the bandwagon, as seen in a montage of broadcasts and headlines expressing outrage at what the files revealed.

The raid’s aftermath proved nerve-wracking for the perpetrators, who feared decades in jail. But for the left in general, the sight of hordes of easily identifiable “undercover” agents vainly combing student neighborhoods for those responsible afforded a gleeful spectacle (Hamilton includes footage of a joyous FBI-mocking fair in a community hit hard by invading fake hippies). On the larger stage, the break-in indirectly led to the Church Committee (excerpted here), the first Congressional investigation of an American intelligence agency. As one of the whistleblowers wryly admits, ultimately the raid would produce unexpectedly ambivalent results: a greater political awareness and desire for government accountability on the one hand, and the destruction of public belief in government on the other.

Film Review: ‘1971’

Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (competing), April 24, 2014. Running time: 80 MIN.

Production: A Maximum Pictures, Fork Films production in co-production with ITVS in association with Big Mouth Prods., Motto Pictures, Ford Foundation JustFilms, Candescent Films. Produced by Joanna Hamilton, Marilyn Ness, Katy Chevigny. Executive producers, Julie Goldman, Abigail E. Disney, Gini Reticker. Co-executive producers, Laura Poitras, Lily Hartley, G. Perezutti Hearst.

Crew: Directed by Joanna Hamilton. Written by Hamilton, Gabriel Rhodes. Camera (color, HD), Kirsten Johnson, Andreas Burgess; editor, Gabriel Rhodes; music, Philip Sheppard; sound, Judy Karp, Mark Maloof, John Zecca, Nejc Poberaj.

With: John Raines, Bonnie Raines, Keith Forsyth, Bob Williamson, Bill Davidon, Betty Medsger, David Kairys.

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MUBI, one of my new best friends, once again brought the goods last week with Peter Watkins’ controversial (and hard to find) 1971 pseudo-documentary, Punishment Park. Those under 40 years of age, like myself, may instantly associate the human hunting with Ernest Dickerson’s 1994 classic (?) Surviving the Game, which seemingly aired on TNT every day through the mid-2000s, however a significantly larger message embodies the 1971 film.

An eclectic group of hippies and draft-dodgers are detained by “the man,” with the option to face the legal system or spend three days being hunted by soldiers in Punishment Park. It’s not clear whether the subjects committed actual crimes, but their ideals seem dangerous enough for a group lockdown (and the cops need training). You might say that Punishment Park is a cinéma vérité, desert version of Minority Report. “You don’t wanna hear my message, man!”

If the long-haired hippies can endure 53 miles through the southern California desert (Joshua Tree?) and capture an American flag, they may walk away and continue on with their anti-establishment lives. Of course, things don’t go as planned and the soldiers “in training” become somewhat anxious and trigger happy. The temperature reaches almost 100 degrees and the subjects must reach the halfway point for their first taste of water. Don’t piss off the hippies!

While certain aspects of Punishment Park may seem hilarious today, the film was undoubtedly frightening upon first release in 1971. After all, the footage looks genuine and cast members were apparently bickering throughout the shoot. The intercutting of political diatribes offers the lingo that one might expect from hippies, but their dialogue while trekking through the desert transforms Punishment Park into an acute dissection of what a combination of fear, paranoia and violence can do. One young woman says, “I don’t think they’re trying to kill us, really,” which is followed by an soldier’s detailed message of how to properly shoot the subjects.The increasing hostility of the soldiers eventually leads a British cameraman to speak up with, “This is going on NBC!,” although nobody really seems to care. Absolute power. The subjects are disposable.

Punishment Park initially comes across as merely a low budget, 16mm fake documentary, but the film has inherent Sci-Fi qualities. Remember, Sci-Fi doesn’t always equal monsters and aliens (see Spike Jonze’s Her). Director Peter Watkins offers an alternate America, in which voices are muffled by weapons and uncompromising power. Oh, that actually happened? What I meant to say is that Watkins has individuals that “overrule” the United States Constitution as a form of legal action.

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Categories: 2014 Film Reviews, Film Reviews, Q.V. Hough

Tagged as: Carmen Argenziano, Katherine Quittner, Kent Foreman, Luke Johnson, Mark Keats, Mary Ellen Kleinhall, Mubi, Patrick Boland, Peter Watkins, Punishment Park, Scott Turner, Stan Armsted


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