Progressive cinema: Whistleblowers at Tribeca

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” – George Orwell

Certainly the film of most interest to progressives at the Tribeca Film Festival this year would be 1971, directed and written by Johanna Hamilton. It tells the heroic story of a group of activists who broke into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971. The Citizens’ Committee to Investigate the FBI stole cases of classified documents and released them to selected politicians and media outlets. All returned the files to the FBI, except Betty Medsger, a young journalist at the Washington Post. The far reaching impact of this daring deed led to the first disclosure of FBI crimes including J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal COINTELPRO program that devastated the activist movement. 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.

Activist Bill Davidon, a Haverford College science professor, secretly formed the group of eight. Many had been in the draft resistance movement, and they were frustrated. Bill felt they needed another strategy to prove there was illegal FBI spying in the movement – that there were two wars, the one in Vietnam and the one at home against dissent. The group included a young couple, John and Bonnie Raines, who were raising three young children at the time. John had previously participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer and has now taught for 46 years in the Religion Dept of Temple University. Bonnie was used to case the FBI office, longtime activist Keith Forsyth was the lock picker and Bob Williamson played comic relief for the tense and criminal act that could lead to long prison sentences if caught. They planned for 6 months, and after the burglary, none of the 8 were ever caught, but both Keith and Bob went on to be arrested with the Camden 28 who were eventually acquitted.

So why are they coming out with the story now? The statute of limitation on the burglary charges ended a while back and with headlines screaming about Snowden, Assange, Manning and other whistleblowers, it was perfect timing. The FBI admitted that the revelations revealed in the 70s helped reform the institution. Many feel not far enough. John and Bonnie were nervous all these years. John admitted that “back then we needed whistleblowers, because the people we sent to Washington to protect our freedoms, weren’t doing that. They were terrified of Hoover and would never hold him accountable. So we the citizens had to do what the folks in Washington wouldn’t do. And now we are in the middle of the same thing, once again, with Mr. Snowden. It just shows that what goes around comes around. People of privilege in power will always try to make the big decisions behind closed doors.”

The film runs parallel to the release of Medsger’s new book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, which tells the full story and its ramifications. 1971 is not only an exciting story but a thrilling and suspenseful movie utilizing reenacted scenes, contemporary interviews with the protagonists and amazing archival footage. And it features the long unsung heroes of the whistleblower community. Probably the first ones.

Another film focusing on contemporary whistleblowers is titled Silenced: America’s War on Whistleblowers, by Academy Award®-nominated documentarian, James Spione. It’s an investigation into the post 9/11 security establishment as revealed through the testimonies of insiders who discover the government’s growing harsh response to unauthorized disclosures. Only 11 Americans have ever been charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 – eight of them since President Obama took office. This film follows two of them, Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou, along with accountability advocate and Snowden’s attorney, Jesselyn Radack, as they deal with the governments extreme charges. Radack explains that “Snowden simply made available documents for journalists to decide what should be published. No documents were released that had security concerns.” But when Snowden was asked why he left the country, he stated “because I saw what happened to Drake and Kiriakou.”

The film, produced by Susan Sarandon, is an impassioned and thought-provoking defense of whistleblowers everywhere. Kiriakou, the first current or former CIA official to confirm that waterboarding was established policy, writes from federal prison where he is serving a 30 month sentence, that Silenced “is not just a documentary, it’s an act of patriotism.”


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.