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A Time for Change

Robert Nelson: Hamilton’s film is particularly important to those who were too young to experience the period. This film defies the popular image that the ‘60s were about sex, drugs and rock and roll.

‘1971’ illustrates what average citizens did to right social wrongs

Movements for social change have a remarkably Darwinian aspect. Before a change, social forces create tension that becomes widely palpable but often the tactics fail. New tactics are tried, many unsuccessfully. Then, one new approach finally works. This keystone event opens the gates. Change happens.

Johanna Hamilton’s film “1971” documents one such instance four decades ago. It is based on Betty Medsger’s book, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI.”

The setting is Philadelphia, 1971. A hundred thousand American parents had lost sons and daughters in Vietnam. The My Lai massacre displayed the war’s horrific impact on the people of Southeast Asia. Domestic opposition, derived from 1960s civil rights movement, evolved into mass confrontations opposing the imperial dominance of the United States. Millions protested the war by writing legislators, marching in demonstrations and sitting in at draft boards. Some broke into draft boards, destroying the files. The government did not budge.

Hamilton chronicles the actions of eight Philadelphia anti-war activists. They felt certain the FBI was harassing them but they had no proof. Agent provocateurs were fomenting violence. Dedicated but frustrated activists were being drawn to the bait. Was there a new, nonviolent approach?

William Davidon, physics professor at Haverford College and well-known local anti-war activist, had an idea. He shared it with seven close friends. He proposed they break into an FBI office in the Philadelphia suburb of Media, remove all the office files and turn the documents over the press. Hamilton shows how they did it.

They called themselves “The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI.” They executed the perfect crime. They remained unknown for more than four decades, until Medsger published her book. In “1971” Hamilton shows us footage of the eight burglars as they are today: academics, professionals and artisans. She also employs professional actors to show us the group as they were then.

We see a gray-haired John Raines, now professor emeritus of religion and ethics at Temple University, and his wife Bonnie, a child development expert, describing how they welcomed the six others into their attic each night to plan the burglary — after they put their three children to sleep. The actors show the Raines’ 43 years earlier, in their dimly lit attic, as they pour over maps, plan entrance and exit routes and decide on the getaway car (It was the Raines’ family station wagon).

Another member of the group, Keith Forsyth, took a locksmith course by correspondence so he could pick the lock on the FBI office door. He practices his skills at each meeting. The image might have been created by Dostoevsky himself.

Hamilton says she employed actors cast as the young burglars, “… to bring justice to the arc of the story.” The effect is profound.

The burglars argue about the date for the burglary. They choose the night of the heavyweight championship fight between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier. The whole world would be listening to their radios or watching at a theater on closed circuit telecast.

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It is fascinating to see two tenured faculty members discussing plans for a burglary at night and imagine them at faculty meetings the next morning, discussing the freshman curriculum.

Could such people seriously pull off a heist? Of course! Let’s remember that during the American Revolution, John Jay was a successful New York lawyer by day while he ran guns for George Washington’s army at night. Afterward, Jay became the first chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Hamilton’s screen recreation of the break-in is spellbinding. They almost botched the job. Forsyth was first at the FBI office, ready to open the lock he trained himself to pick. He discovers two locks on the FBI office door! They had cased the place previously and noticed only one. Plan B was simple. He pried open the adjacent office door with a crowbar. Then, the rest of the burglars entered the office and carried out the files in suitcases, wearing recently acquired Brooks Brothers suits from a local thrift shop.

Raines drove the files to a nearby safe house. Over the next several weeks they photocopied the documents and mailed them to journalists at three newspapers, one of them Medsger, at the Washington Post.

Hamilton shows Medsger describing the tension at the Post. Her editor Ben Bradley and publisher Katharine Graham made a decision to publish the story in the face of massive pressure from the Nixon administration. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times cowered.

The burglars returned to their day jobs.

Reporters plowed through the released documents. They showed that FBI agents infiltrated anti-war and civil rights groups with agent provocateurs advocating extreme violence. They even provided explosives and weapons to gullible activists. The burglars were correct. The FBI’s Cointelpro program was exposed.

Over the next few years the public clamor grew. We see congressional investigators presenting their findings to a Senate committee headed by Franck Church of Idaho. The FBI had attempted to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into taking his own life.

Major limits were placed on FBI practices. The police state was briefly stopped. Regrettably, the restrictions were removed after 9/11. These constitutional protections remain ignored today.

Hamilton’s film is particularly important to those who were too young to experience the period. This film defies the popular image that the ‘60s were about sex, drugs and rock and roll.


More than 2 million Vietnamese people and more than 57,000 Americans died in that war. Eight American heroes, masquerading as burglars, did something to stop the carnage.

Robert M. Nelson
Pasadena Weekly