Skip to main content

Paranoia Justified: '1971' Depicts a Most Improbable Crime

By Ron Deutsch

A re-enactment from Johanna Hamilton's '1971'. Courtesy of Andreas Burgess.

In some ways it's difficult to imagine what America was like before 1971. Communism had been represented for decades in the media as an Orwellian hell, where neighbors spied on neighbors, the government monitored every utterance, and even a harmless joke at the government's expense could sentence a person to a Siberian gulag. America, by contrast, was considered the land of free and unbridled speech—the McCarthy Era notwithstanding.

Certainly by the late 1960s, many people had come to suspect that the government was keeping tabs on some of the more violent dissident groups of the time. But for some, especially people in and around college campuses and those involved in the anti-war movement, there was a growing sense, in the parlance of the time, that "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you're not being followed." But for the country at large to believe such a notion—that the government was actively involved in covert operations against its own citizens—was just plain crazy talk.

All that began to unravel because of eight people: college professors, students and even a housewife, who managed to carry out a most improbable crime in 1971. The amateur burglars broke into a small FBI office in the suburb of Media, Pennsylvania, and stole every file there. Even more improbable is that the perpetrators were never caught. It is only now, more than four decades later, that five of the group decided to reveal themselves in 1971, a documentary about the break-in.

"It was so improbable," says Johanna Hamilton, the film's director. As she explains, the crime had been mostly forgotten over time, and yet remained "a seminal event in contemporary American history."

Why was it such an important event? Firstly, the group uncovered proof that the government had been spying on both activist students and professors at universities around the country. There was even a memo that detailed efforts by agents to "enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox." The burglars, aka the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, sent copies of the documents they found to two members of Congress, The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. It was only Betty Metzger, a reporter at the Post, who fought to get them published in the paper.

For the next few years, the G-Men tried to catch the burglars. They came close several times, but they never found out who was behind the FBI break-in. Meanwhile, "The Pentagon Papers comes along three months later," says Hamilton. "And then you have Watergate." The Media break-in was soon forgotten.

However, NBC reporter Carl Stern happened to visit the Senate not long after the documents were released. He was investigating something else and, as Hamilton explains, a Senate staffer "happens to hand him these sheafs of documents from the Media break-in. Carl becomes intrigued and decides to pursue it, which is extraordinary in and of itself." On one of these documents was a reference to an operation entitled COINTELPRO. Stern's investigation led to the Church Commission hearings two years later. It was the first time Americans had a peek into how their government was not only spying on, but playing unconscionable dirty tricks on, its own citizens. From infiltrating women's liberation meetings to sending letters to Martin Luther King Jr., urging him to kill himself, the COINTELPRO documents forever changed the way Americans viewed not just the FBI, but the government itself. That these revelations were a direct result of the Media break-in was barely a footnote in historical records.

Bob Williamson, one of the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI. Photo: Greg Moore.

How the British Johanna Hamilton wound up making 1971— her directorial debut—could almost be described as "destiny."

"I had a long personal relationship with Betty Metzger," Hamilton explains. "We struck up an email correspondence when I was living in South Africa and she was advising me on journalism schools." Hamilton later earned her master's degree in broadcast journalism from New York University. Coincidentally, Metzger had moved to New York and had already begun working on a book about the Media break-in. Hamilton became one of the few people with whom Metzger shared details of the story, including the fact that Metzger now knew the identities of, and had been in direct contact with, some of the Media burglars. Hamilton was interested making a film about the break-in from that moment, but it took many years before the stars aligned. Hamilton went on to co-produce the 2008 award-winning documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, and began working on a feature documentary project of her own.

"One day Betty telephoned to say, 'Are you serious?'" Hamilton recalls. "And I was like, 'Of course. Absolutely.' Then it was a slow pivot of a few months. At first, she put me in touch with the members of the Citizens’ Commission, and after a couple of months I went to meet them in Philadelphia. They asked me a series of questions and we got to know each other. And then it was couple of days before I knew I would have access and the film was going to happen. At that point, I put this other project aside."

Hamilton points out that her film is not merely based on Metzger's book The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI, but as the filmmaker got involved they were collaborators on each other's projects.

"We had these independent projects," Hamilton says. "But there were ways in which we helped each other, and I brought in some different ideas. There had been so much groundwork that had been laid, so much research—principally, the filing of the Freedom of Information Act for the 34,000 pages of the FBI investigation that Betty had done. I had access to it immediately, which was extraordinary. And toward the end, Betty came on interviews with me. It was more of a collaboration than is immediately evident, with her being a protagonist and having such a long relationship with the story."

If 1971 plays like a heist thriller, the making of the film became its own espionage tale. Since the burglars had never been caught, not only were their identities kept a mystery to all but a select inner group, but Hamilton kept the story a secret to many until the project neared completion.

"It was very annoying to a lot of people," Hamilton recalls. "You don't want to seem overly mysterious, but on the other hand we were operating with this imperfect information because we didn't know how the US government would react. We erred on the side of caution.

"Perhaps it was an overabundance of caution," she adds. While the FBI had officially closed the case in 1976 with the statute on burglary and theft of government property having expired, "J. Edgar Hoover wanted to charge them with espionage. So there could have been an outstanding warrant in the Department of Justice because that statute never tolls, and we didn't want to inquire, for obvious reasons. So we did go to the worst case scenarios so that we were prepared. But still, even if there wasn't a potential warrant, if the story leaked—and at this point, 2009, pre-Edward Snowden, just the general reception of whistle-blowers in the current administration was not good—we imagined that some journalist or prosecutor at the DoJ would take this on, even though it would have been incredibly hard to prosecute them successfully, even impossible. But it doesn't mean they couldn't ruin someone's life. Those were the concerns we operated with."

And speaking of "pre-Edward Snowden," one of the few close friends Hamilton had let into her inner circle was another filmmaker she had first befriended about seven years ago: Laura Poitras (CitizenFour).

"She got involved very early on, pretty much as soon as I knew I had access," Hamilton says. "We also share a very dear friend and DP, Kirsten Johnson, who shot parts of CitizenFour and her previous film, The Oath, as well as my film. I knew at the time that she was working on this film about contemporary surveillance, so there was overlap, and we would talk regularly in those first few years. Then after Laura moved to Berlin, our communication became more sporadic.

"Then all of sudden in March of 2013, I get an email from Laura. She wrote, 'Hello, I'm thinking about you and your film. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help.' I thought that was very nice and I wrote her back. And then didn't hear back. Then in June, along with the rest of the world, we found out about Snowden. So it definitely felt like we had come full circle. What's been interesting is that people say to me at screenings, 'My gosh, these people decided to come out since Snowden?' And I'm like, 'No, no, no.' It was quite extraordinary."

About the secrecy during the making of her film, Hamilton notes, "It was such a celebration when we were finally able to talk about it. We didn't put anything online. We had this code. We had the burglars labeled by number. When we referred to them online, it was always by their numbers. There was a lot of shuttling things around on password-protected thumb drives and stuff like that."

A re-enactment from Johanna Hamilton's '1971'. Courtesy of Andreas Burgess.

The secrecy surrounding the identities of the burglars also played a factor in the re-creations. "The actors knew they were re-creating this one break-in to an FBI office," Hamilton says, "but they didn't really know the full scope. I would show each of the actors a short clip of the person they were portraying so they would get a sense of both the diction and a bit of their personality."

Hamilton made the decision to do re-creations with some trepidation. "They can be a little controversial and they're not everybody's cup of tea," she admits, "but I did feel I needed them both to make the story come alive and for people to put themselves in their shoes." Having little experience directing actors on a set, she sought out Maureen Ryan, who produced the re-creations on James Marsh’s Man on Wire.

"I was a really big fan of her work," Hamilton says. "Maureen brings an enormous amount of expertise just in terms of running these kinds of productions. She has a casting agent she's worked with for years, a location scout, who are all wonderful and terrific, like the production designer, Markus Kirschner. I brought the director of photography, Andreas Burgess. It was both enormously exciting and very terrifying having 35 people there—a sort of full-out, mini-independent feature crew for four days. But it was much more fun than I imagined."

Watching the film, you can sense why it earned the 2014 IDA ABCNews VideoSource Award. Hamilton doesn't use archival footage as mere cutaways from the talking heads and re-creations. They serve to help place the audience into the time period. From clips of the Ali-Frazier fight (the burglars used that night as a cover for their break-in), to the old FBI television series, to some incredible footage of a street fair that was staged to ridicule the undercover FBI agents who were pretending to "fit in" the Philadelphia neighborhood.

"I wanted it to be a film that you felt you were within, not outside looking in," Hamilton explains. "We spent months looking for footage. A lot of the time we ran up against the fact that people didn't have information specifically about the news of the break-in, at least in its early days. So it required my associate producer, Danielle Varga, to just sit there and spool through to find things. And in keeping with not wanting to reveal the Citizens Commission identities, we couldn't tell the archives who specifically we were looking for; that certainly made Danielle's life hellish. We also found that Temple University was housing the archives of a lot of the local TV stations, and the archivists there were very helpful. And occasionally we'd just come up with these gems, one of our favorites being the street fair."

Hamilton was also able to mine some of the burglars' personal archives for stills and 16mm footage. "There were also a couple of wonderful Philadelphia-based photographers," she notes. "A guy called Greg Moore, who had spent those years documenting those protests, was incredibly generous with us."

Making a historical documentary that resonates with current events brings in a host of issues in the editing room, Hamilton says. You want people to make the connection, but you also want the film to stand on its own. "We've had a few people who have said, 'Why weren't you more explicit about the contemporary stuff?' We definitely wrestled with it a lot in the editing room. I think to have more ties to what's happening today would have dated the film, in a strange way. I think historical documentaries always have to answer to this.

"The conversation has to be ongoing," Hamilton continues. "For me, what Fritz Schwarz, the chief counsel to the Church Commission, says at the end is so emblematic and will always hold true: At the beginning these programs are understandable but then they move with a sort of 'mission creep' to wrong and incomprehensible, without adequate oversight. The same can be said of post-September 11, which has been borne out.

As John Raines (one of the burglars) likes to say, 'The tradition of whistle-blowing is the gasoline of democracy.'"

1971 airs May 18 on PBS’ Independent Lens.


Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor with Documentary Magazine. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman. He is currently associate-producing the documentary Record Man, about the post-war music industry.