EXCLUSIVE: Oscar winner Alex Gibney, one of the most celebrated documentary filmmakers working today, is lining up his narrative feature directing debut with The Action, a 1970s-set political thriller for Lionsgate. The story follows eight anti-war activists who stole and made public classified FBI documents that exposed J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign of spying on and blackmailing troublemakers. Scott Z. Burns (Contagion) is writing the script and will produce along with Anonymous Content’s Michael Sugar and Meredith Milton and Participant Media. Anonymous’ Ashley Zalta is an exec producer. Sugar is coming off the back of a Best Picture win at the Academy Awards for Spotlight, where he gave an impassioned speech in tribute to the victims of abuse by the Catholic church.
The story behind The Action would seem to be inspired by the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, a group of activists who, in 1971, on the night much of the country was following the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight, broke into an FBI office in Pennsylvania and stole files about the bureau’s surveillance of anti-war groups and civil rights organizations. Despite hundreds of agents being assigned to discover the culprits, they went uncaught for decades. Eventually, in 2014, the group was unmasked — voluntarily — by Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger in her book The Burglary: The Discovery Of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. It was Medsger who, in 1971, had received an anonymous package from the burglars with evidence of the surveillance program.
Given the ongoing debate over the government’s right and ability to access information with the FBI’s request of Apple to help break into the San Bernadino killer’s phone and the likes of Edward Snowden, this looks an extremely topical film. With Gibney at the helm, it is likely to be authentic and fast-paced, too. Having established himself as one of the most distinctive voices working, Gibney has fearlessly tackled hot-potato subjects including Scientology (Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief), cyber hacking (Zero Days), and the U.S. government’s post-9/11 interrogation practices (Taxi To The Dark Side), for which he won the Oscar. More joyously, he also made one of the very best Frank Sinatra documentaries last year with All Or Nothing At All.
Both Gibney and Burns are repped by UTA. Lionsgate declined to comment.