There’s something charmingly retro about the tools of the thieving trade on display in "1971," Johanna Hamilton’s new documentary that opened the Milwaukee Film Festival last night. The film opens with a former political activist prying at some lock tumblers with some picks. Later, a crowbar makes a cameo when a deadbolted door needs a little extra encouragement. Gloves are a must at all times, and the big score – stolen FBI files – are, you know, actual files.
However, those tools, plus maybe a few pairs of oversized glasses and some playful period protest cheekiness, are the only things that feel dated about the thrilling, all too timely story "1971" comes to tell. The instruments may have changed, from lock picks to keyboards, but the key issue – the hidden reality of a government surveillance state – is as modern and omnipresent as an iPhone 6.
Their collective fuse is burned to its end by the sluggish progress of protests, the still fresh scars of 1968 and the FBI’s attempts (at their worst, devious, abusive and illegal; at their best, comically inept and still illegal) to crush them from the inside. First Amendment be damned, a band of eight ordinary protesters – self-dubbed the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI – decide to take drastic action. The plan: On the night of the ballyhooed Fight of the Century between Frazier and Ali, the daring activists would break into an unassuming – and bafflingly almost unguarded – nearby FBI office in Media, Penn. and snatch all of the files inside. Danny Ocean would be proud.
The amateur thieves’ haul – sent to three media outlets and published by one, the Washington Post – ends up revealing decades of illegal FBI snooping, wiretapping and intimidation tactics, all on American citizens and all brashly written down and catalogued as though no one would care or discover. While FBI agents flock over to Pennsylvania to find the whistleblowers, the rest of the government starts to look into J. Edgar’s shadowy spy enclave and its seemingly unrestricted powers.
Certainly this would mark a lesson well learned and therefore the last time the American public would have nationwide fears and debates about government surveillance (cue sad trumpet sound).
Intertwining archival footage, reenactments and unprecedented interviews with former Commission members – never caught and silent until now – Hamilton manages to get the best of both worlds, creating an effective, informative history lesson wrapped up inside a tense Hollywood-ready political paranoia heist thriller.
As merely a heist caper, "1971" packs a surprising thrill. Part of that is just the inherent excitement of the story. Though the activists may now be grayed, their story – as told by them and Hamilton – is still as fresh and exciting, with twists, turns and reveals scattered throughout. Members begin backing out and getting squirrely at the wrong time; later on, the group’s greatest menace comes in the form of a Xerox machine. Even when the story sprawls out a bit too far – almost a given considering the amount of content from the era and the eight team members to introduce and characterize – Hamilton keeps the pacing brisk and the tension high.
The film reaches its entertainment peak fittingly at the heist itself. While the story itself is exciting, Hamilton – along with producer and "Man on Wire" reenactment vet Maureen A. Ryan – smartly uses reenactments to bring the tension to cinematic life. They’re not fancy, but the sequences – misty and drenched in sepia and shadow like a faded memory or dream – nicely bring the audience into the events and the era. Hearing about timing a door crack just right is far less exciting than seeing the events seemingly unfold before the viewer.
The reenactments provide a nice dash of actual cinema to what could’ve simply been a PBS-approved collection of archived clips and talking heads. Yet even on its own, told in their words, the story of these brave and bold individuals – gone mostly untold or unremembered – is riveting enough to make history feel like entertainment.
That’s not even including the charge of current events, like Snowden and WikiLeaks. Near the end, Hamilton plays an audio recording of a former FBI chief, talking fervently about surveillance and infringement as the inherent nature of government. "It happened," he warns. "It will happen." The line creates a chill worthy of a Hollywood horror film, striking a nerve still raw over 40 years later.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published March 29, 2017
Heads up, Hales Corners: 9th Slice Pizza Co., a new fast-casual-meets-dine-in pizza place complete with a Italian-made oven new to Wisconsin - is moving into the location at 5620 S. 108th St., sometime this summer.
Published March 29, 2017
The Wisconsin State Fair made not one, not two but three headliner announcements today, with the Beach Boys/Temptations, Alan Jackson and Sabrina Carpenter all headed to the Main Stage this summer.
Published March 28, 2017
Today, Arte Para Todos - the four-day local music extravaganza meaning "art for everyone" - released its official schedule, featuring almost 100 performers playing across more than 20 locations and four neighborhoods for one great cause.
Published March 28, 2017
"Dancing with the Stars" eliminated its first celeb last night on a sloppy second show. But technical troubles aside, how did the 11 left do? The judges had their say, but here's where we ranked them, from worst to first.
Published March 27, 2017
This morning, Summerfest announced that EDM/pop duo The Chainsmokers will headline the American Family Insurance Amphitheater on July 4.
Published March 25, 2017
Comedy can have a brutally short shelf life. The expiration date on the classic comedic stylings of the Marx Brothers, however, remains far off in the distance. And proving that has been Frank Ferrante's mission for more than three decades.
Published March 23, 2017
A new HGTV house-flipping show set in Milwaukee - "My Flippin' Friends," starring Cream City native and I Spy DIY creator Jenni Radosevich - is headed to your televisions. But it needs your help to stay there.
Published March 22, 2017
From original shows and movies to an impressive lineup of classic films and legendary directors, there's plenty to be excited for next month on Netflix. Unfortunately, what streaming services giveth they also taketh away.
Published March 21, 2017
Thanks to the Milwaukee Bucks, Nick Viall is coming home. On Friday night, the Bucks will not only host the Atlanta Hawks, but also a themed night dedicated to Waukesha's very own star of "The Bachelor" and current "Dancing with the Stars" hoofer.
Published March 21, 2017
Last night, "Dancing with the Stars" hit the stage for its 24th season and 400th episode, with the usual collection of sports stars and C-listers. The judges had their say, but here's our rankings - from worst to first - after the premiere.