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A real-life FBI break-in is chronicled in the documentary "1971," currently at the Milwaukee Film Festival.
A real-life FBI break-in is chronicled in the documentary "1971," currently at the Milwaukee Film Festival.

Past and present thrillingly intersect in opening night doc "1971"

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.

"1971": ***

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