In the early 1970s, stealing secret government files didn’t require malware wizardry. A handful of satellite FBI offices featured limited security and unlocked file cabinets. One such facility, in Media, Pennsylvania, was robbed in March 1971 by eight Vietnam War protesters fed up with their movement’s ongoing harassment by badly disguised FBI agents.
After years of extensive press coverage, the FBI underwent court hearings in 1975. Johanna Hamilton’s 1971 presents the first onscreen testimony from these erudite burglars. Miraculously, though seven of the eight were questioned by the Bureau, none were indicted, and the case was dropped in 1976. They now lead relatively blasé lives.
1971 is gripping from start to finish, a meditation on how felonies carried out to expose greater evils should perhaps be less punishable. Its intended timeliness, though, isn’t quite realized. At its outset it briefly contrasts these outlaws with Edward Snowden, but he is never mentioned again. (One notable difference: Snowden outed himself to protect his former co-workers from potential federal interrogation, whereas all eight participants here stayed quiet as their peers were tormented.)
The most engrossing moments involve rather small revelations. Bonnie Raines, who posed as an FBI applicant to assess the Media office’s penetrability, recalls her panic when the “reading glasses” she wore at the interview turned out to be farsighted. Her and husband John’s offspring, now grown up, shudder at the thought that their parents may have been jailed indefinitely. And, hilariously, the group’s findings revealed that J. Edgar Hoover suspected even the Boy Scouts of Bolshevism.