During the Vietnam War, Hollywood maintained a curiously stony silence about the conflict in Indochina and the violently split reactions at home. Except for the John Wayne insanity “The Green Berets” and the cinema verite depiction of the 1968 protests outside the Democratic National Convention in “Medium Cool,” the war was nowhere to be seen on the screen.
“FTA,” a documentary produced by and starring Jane Fonda, was the rare film which bluntly addressed the Vietnam War and the policies behind the U.S. involvement. But unfortunately, it was a little too rare: the film was abruptly withdrawn after only one week in release and has never been made available for re-issue, either in theaters or TV or home video. (This review is based on a bootleg video copy which the writer recently received as a birthday gift!)
During 1971 and 1972, Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland led a quasi-USO tour that played in towns outside of U.S. military bases along the West Coast and throughout the Pacific. Fonda referred to the tour as “political vaudeville” and the show itself was called “FTA” (the acronym standing for “Free the Army” and “F**k the Army”). The audiences were primarily the men and women of the U.S. armed services, and during the tour Fonda and her company interviewed the various soldiers, sailors and marines regarding their thoughts on the Indochina slaughterhouse.
Viewing “FTA” today is like opening a long-forgotten time capsule. The film’s true power comes in the frank, often rude comments from the servicemen and women who openly question the purpose and planning of the American involvement in Vietnam. Most memorable here are the members of the U.S.S. Coral Sea, who presented a petition to their superiors demanding a halt to the bombing in Vietnam; African-American soldiers and marines who angrily decried racist attitudes among the white commanding officers at the U.S. military installations, usually with an upraised fist of the Black Power movement; women serving in the U.S. Air Force who talk unhappily about sexual harassment from their male counterparts; and soldiers who pointedly refer to the dictatorial government in South Vietnam which was being presented as the democracy which they were supposedly defending. The extraordinary air of dissent that rises out of “FTA” provides a rare glimpse into a unhappy and demoralized fighting force stuck in a war which they did not believe in.
To its disadvantage, however, “FTA” loses its focus frequently and tries to squeeze in endless voices of malcontent politics. A lengthy segment is given to the complaints of the people of Okinawa regarding the U.S. military presence on their island, and an even longer segment is provided to a Philippine street theater protest against U.S. imperialism (though oddly, no straightforward mention is made of the U.S. backing of the corrupt Marcos regime). There is also an irrelevant visit to a museum in Hiroshima which documented the effects of the atomic bomb’s visit to the city in 1945. Strangely, the film shortchanges a truly harrowing and heartbreaking vision: a very brief chat with a discharged American soldier who lost an arm in Vietnam and left the service to wander aimlessly through Japan, without a home or a sense of purpose in life. This unfortunate young man appears literally out of nowhere and disappears almost as quickly; his story should have been given a film unto itself.
As for the “FTA” show itself, it was actually a rather benign event full of soggy antiwar folks songs and silly military skits with as much satire and bite as a Beetle Bailey cartoon strip. The humor here is primarily focused on silly-a*s lieutenants getting dissed by privates, pompous officers’ wives who get priority treatment over the wives of enlisted men, and the endless us-versus-them resentment among the various levels of the military hierarchy. One sketch, however, offered a nasty sting with Donald Sutherland taking the role of a TV sports commentator providing a play-by-play call on a battle between U.S. forces and the Vietcong (the battle ends prematurely when American fighter planes bomb their own ground troops). The funniest part of the tour, however, was purely unintentional: a chubby marine corporal wobbles on to the stage to perform a clumsy antiwar song, but he can’t remember the lyrics and one of the “FTA” performers holds them like a cue card while the poor marine sings in off-key earnestness. The military audiences at the “FTA” seemed to enjoy the performances, although the film includes a hairy moment when a few hecklers disrupt the show and are ejected by other audience members.
And Jane Fonda? While she stays submerged in the “FTA” ensemble during the stage shows, she takes a front-and-center star role in greeting the various press members who are covering the tour. Fonda speaks stridently about supporting the U.S. service members in Vietnam while criticizing the U.S. government policies which put them into harm’s way. (In comparison, Donald Sutherland seemed more laid-back and genuinely interested in speaking with his military audiences rather than providing sound bites for the press.) Of course, no one today recalls Fonda as being gung-ho for the rights of the American fighting forces and watching “FTA” today it is remarkable to consider that Fonda’s career survived her “Hanoi Jane” activities (which are not mentioned in this film).
“FTA” is reportedly being kept from reissue by Jane Fonda; the film was conspicuously absent from a retrospective tribute to her career at Lincoln Center earlier this year. Although not a great film by any stretch, it is a fascinating slice of a fractious period in American history. Having a filmed record of the discontent of that era makes this an important documentary, and one can easily forgive its shortcomings and stumbles when considering this was the rare production to question the Vietnam War at a time when Hollywood preferred to look the other way.