Forty years before WikiLeaks and the NSA scandal, there was Media, Pennsylvania. In 1971, eight activists plotted an intricate break-in to the local FBI offices to leak stolen documents and expose the illegal surveillance of ordinary Americans in an era of anti-war activism. In this riveting heist story, the perpetrators reveal themselves for the first time, reflecting on their actions and raising broader questions surrounding security leaks in activism today.
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★★★★ review by Bob Hovey on Letterboxd
In 1971, a group of young people broke into an FBI office and stole every file and sent copies to the major newspapers. The effects of this single event snowballed, revealing the lengths to which the FBI had gone to subvert groups it considered dangerous (including anti-war, women's rights and civil rights groups), eventually resulting in the revelation that the FBI had not only violated the civil rights of innocent Americans, it had actually engaged in subversive activities of it's own (for example, the anonymous letter they sent to Martin Luther King suggesting that he "do the right thing" and commit suicide before he could be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize). The investigation into the break-in never resulted in any arrests, and after remaining undiscovered for more than 40 years, the participants have come forward to tell their stories in this documentary. As a film production it is fairly routine ... talking heads, still photos, news clips, highlighted documents. But in terms of content, it is spectacular ... it is an important document about an important but little-known event in our history.
★★★★ review by Aaron King on Letterboxd
A doc about a subject that seems to not really bring up which is that the FBI had gotten broken into in the 70s which helped to limit their power once the knowledge of what really is going on with them came out. It seems like the watergate scandal overshadows it and makes it seems less relevant but I think it is more important. It is an interesting turning point in the invasion of privacy. It puts into focus the scary events of the 70s. A wonderful 80 minutes spent.
★★★★½ review by Bryan Way ▲ on Letterboxd
★★★★ review by Hooded Justice on Letterboxd
"If all of us simply did what we thought was safe, that would let people who want to take our government away from us get away. They would be safe, we wouldn't be safe." --Bill, ringleader of the Citizens' Committee to Investigate the FBI
It's kind of surreal to watch this on the day the sitting president's idiot son released documents on Twitter implicating himself, his father's former campaign chair, and his own brother-in-law in treason. Forget COINTELPRO. That was more like COINTELAMATEURHOUR.
★★★★ review by Post1000Tension on Letterboxd
Accompanied by a Q&A with Keith Forsyth, original participant in the 1971 burglary. In the film and in real life, Forsyth struck me as a modest, perceptive man whose life has been lived in harmony with his beliefs. Not everyone has the courage of their convictions (self included), and it becomes even harder when one's political stance becomes radically opposed to surrounding conditions. Believing in revolutionary change is one thing, but carrying it out is another altogether.
Forsyth and his peers responded to the illegality/immorality of the Vietnam War by breaking into a regional FBI office and pilfering many of its documents. Those documents were then published by the Washington Post, in a weird contemporaneous overlap with the Pentagon papers story (Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham are even shown in this film briefly). 1971's interviewees believe this sequence of events led to an even bigger chain reaction, one which came to engulf the FBI and eventually Richard Nixon as well. US Americans had hitherto felt their government to be beyond reproach, but once it was revealed that the FBI had been spying on citizens without warrants, a seismic shift in public opinion occurred.
The most dramatic (and, to my mind, most direct) consequence of this group's actions was the unearthing of COINTELPRO. Before the 1971 burglary, no one outside the FBI knew anything about COINTELPRO. The word cryptically appeared in the title of a memo that had been stolen, unexplained and without context. The FBI panicked when they realized COINTELPRO had made its public debut, even in such a seemingly small way. Its public naming meant that inquirers could now file requests to know more under the Freedom of Information Act, an opportunity that did not exist previously. You have to name your area of interest when filing a request, so if nobody had ever heard of COINTELPRO, then no one could ask for documents pertaining to the program's operations.
But that's exactly what happened. One request led to four documents being released, and from those documents a full *50,000* followed. US Americans were rightly horrified to learn that domestic spying and subversion had been carried out on US leftist, feminist, pro-black, and anti-war groups. There were rumors, of course, that the US government did such things, but here at last were documents to prove it. Knowing this wretched history is a big part of left consciousness today, and in my opinion it gives a certain mandate to left action: don't assume the US government will react kindly to radical protest. Further, one can be quite sure that electoral politics will not lead to revolutionary change, even if harm reduction is possible through specific candidates. The US government is simply too hostile to leftism, here and elsewhere, to entertain such a possibility. It's crucial to know the terrain -- and the enemy -- if one is seeking a truly radical break from this imperialist nation's SOP.
Also at the Q&A: Stephen H. Sachs, former Attorney General of Maryland. Now in his 80s, Sachs joined Keith Forsyth onstage to discuss crimes of conscience. His opinion is that even legitimate acts of civil disobedience should be charged criminally, even if the sentencing will ultimately be light. Doing so preserves "the rule of law," a phrase he used often in his responses. He cited the example of anti-abortion extremists carrying out their own crimes of conscience, insisting that prosecution of left idealists is what makes it possible to prosecute right-wing idealists as well. Sachs was often booed, heckled, and outright contradicted by many attendees, some of whom were also original members of the Catonsville Nine (in whose honor this screening was arranged).
I do have to give Sachs credit for playing straight man to a living hero, a role I doubt many would eagerly assume. To show up at an event like this is to invite rampant left-liberal hostility, and as much as I disagreed with him myself, I appreciate his willingness to engage. However, his Comey-esque defenses of a transcendent "rule of law" rang very hollow when spoken next to Keith Forsyth. A high-level government official talking about hard choices and higher morality means nothing when juxtaposed with a man who risked years, even decades in prison for his actions. The US government was plainly in the wrong during the Vietnam War, and Forsyth knew so intuitively. He and his peers felt they had to take action and reveal to the world what they suspected the FBI of doing. The documents they obtained bore out their hypothesis, which led to further revelations of governmental wrongdoing. Sachs would say the ends justify the means in this case, but he insists that prosecutorial action is still the appropriate response. That's an easy and automatic response to take towards Forsyth and co.'s monumental risk. Many of his peers had families, jobs, and plans for the future which would all have been harmed by the US government's retaliation. And by no means was the initial response to the 1971 burglary unanimous or adulatory. Many were incensed, and only after incontrovertible evidence emerged did public opinion begin to change. Until that point, Forsyth and his peers lived in fear of the FBI, who took a very keen interest in Media, PA's dissident population. There can be no equivalence drawn between the self-interested fury of the FBI and Forsyth's conscientious objection. Power is the missing component of Sachs' belief system, and as much as he swears by official magnanimity, it will always put heavy downward pressure on anyone who asks questions that the US government prefers unasked.
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