Keeping SecretsAbove: Patrick Stewart in Match
Match is a tight, comically uncomfortable little box of a story about selfishness and pasts that refuse to die. It features enough salty turns of phrase and violently clashing expectations to generate a reasonably entertaining evening in its company. But essential it isn’t.
The movie, which ran briefly as a play on Broadway in 2004 and screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, opens on Tobi (Patrick Stewart), an aging Juilliard choreographer whose fierce internal discipline has led him to a self-induced isolation in the twilight of his career. In a bright practice room, Tobi glides among his dancers, alternating quiet directives with stern corrections (“Arms loose! We are not making pizza”). Then he heads to his roomy apartment at the upper verge of Manhattan (“A neighborhood of Dominicans and Albanians I didn’t even know existed”) to await the arrival of a special pair of guests.
Lisa (Carla Gugino) and her husband Mike (Matthew Lillard) mean to interview Tobi, concerning a long career during which he apparently danced everywhere and choreographed everyone. Lisa is writing a dissertation on dance, while Mike is on hand to run the tape recorder and occasionally stare balefully at Tobi. It’s a salon of one, with the verbose Tobi swanning about his apartment like some grand downtown wit, his erudition coy and his obscenities earthy. Stewart makes clear in a series of tart, sexually ambiguous bon mots that Tobi yet believes he was destined for something greater than his current state.
Of course, there’s more to the visit than Lisa and Mike first let on, and that’s where Match heads into rockier territory. In trying to confront Tobi about an episode from his past, the couple is in effect asking him to confront the consequences of his vagabond lifestyle. The film hints at an inquiry into the inherent selfishness of pursing the arts, but just as Tobi shifts from disciplined teacher to motor-mouthed ditz to dispenser of sage advice, so too the film ultimately bangs around from catty comedy to emotive melodrama without much more calibration than a sitcom.
The documentary 1971, also screening at Tribeca, offers a decidedly more nuanced investigation of motives and meanings. Johanna Hamilton’s sharp film looks back on the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, a meticulously organized protest cell who brainstormed possibly the single most significant act of illegal political protest in US history. Perhaps most remarkably, they were never caught.
The film describes not just how these eight Philadelphia-area activists came to break into an FBI office and helped expose the heretofore unknown COINTELPRO, but also why they risked everything to do it. Opposed to the war in Vietnam and also American domestic intelligence efforts to derail the anti-war movement, they wanted to undertake an action that would be significant but also non-violent.
Knowing that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was at that point a law unto itself, operating with no oversight and ensuring that politicians were cowed by the threat of blackmail, the Committee found a good target. Looking in the phone book, they located a branch office in the town of Media, Pennsylvania. Located on the second floor of an apartment building, it was only guarded by one locked door, owing to the agency’s arrogance at the time. After months of casing the place—including Committee member Bonnie Raines‘s infiltration of the office by pretending to be a student interested in joining the FBI, and another member’s teaching himself how to pick locks—they broke in, a climactic moment recreated judiciously here, in scenes that don’t overstate the drama.
In fact, what the group found inside the office provides plenty of drama. Many of the stolen papers described in detail the range of programs the FBI used to keep tabs on and disrupt any political activity that Hoover deemed “subversive” and “un-American.” The records showed the agency’s activities ranged from the comically inept (an undercover agent wearing wingtip shoes along with a tie-dyed shirt) to the horrific (sending anonymous letters to Martin Luther King Jr. suggesting that he kill himself). Adding insult to injury was the fact that nearly all of these schemes appear to have been totally ineffective. Still, the damage done in terms of the paranoia and cynicism that their agent provocateurs generated can’t be overstated.
While 1971 makes some mention of later scandals like the Pentagon Papers, it also might have made clearer the significance of what happened when copies of the papers found in the Media, PA office were mailed to major newspapers. All of them save for the Washington Post immediately turned the papers over to the FBI. The Post, however, went ahead and investigated, then published their findings as an exposé of the inner workings of America’s shadow police force. That direct confrontation of the state created a precedent that made the Post‘s Watergate diligent investigations possible.
Deftly tracing the skullduggery of the mission and the Committee member’s need to keep quiet about it afterward, as well as the impact of the find itself, 1971 crafts a thrilling lesson about how authoritarianism can be curbed, sometimes, by one simple and well-targeted blow. To that last point, the film also underlines the importance of the source, an unlikely coalition of activists. One of the couples at the center of the group had several children, whom they worried about abandoning if they were sent to prison. But as former Freedom Rider John Raines notes in one of his many sage observations, people with children to worry cannot use that as an excuse not to act. Otherwise, he suggests, nothing would ever be done.