Reviews of F.T.A.

Roger Greenspun, New York Times, Movie Section, Published: July 22, 1972

By now most people must know something about the political vaudeville troupe formed by Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and others to offer soldiers an alternate entertainment to say, Bob Hope, or whatever shows are provided by the U.S.O. The troupe called itself F.T.A., which stands for Free Theater Associates, or for other things such as, Free the Army.

Last year, against considerable official opposition, it toured United States military bases in the Pacific. Francine Parker’s "F.T.A.," which opened yesterday at the Baronet and Victoria theaters, is a documentary about aspects of that tour.

The film divides its attention pretty evenly between the performers and their audience, and a lot of time is given to interviews with dissident, or merely disillusioned, servicemen. Some hate the war in Vietnam. Some just voice dismay at certain truths about the military like "They don't want you to be an individual") [sic] that have been perpetually rediscovered by raw recruits at least since the Battle of Thermopylae.

So much time is given to the audience, whose insights, though real, are neither original nor profound, that the actual performance comes across in scattered bits and pieces.

A lot of the show must have been very funny, with a kind of humor genuinely in touch with the desperation borne of simply being in the service. (Army doctor prescribing to obviously pregnant wife of enlisted man: "Go home and take two A.P.C. tablets and come back when your swelling goes down.")

But as presented in the movie, most of the show doesn’t seem very funny, except inadvertently—as when Donald Sutherland seriously recites the prose of Dalton Trumbo with a straight-from-the-shoulder solemnity that happens to be perfectly in keeping with his phony-preacher characterization in Jules Feiffer’s "Little Murders."

Occasionally the F.T.A. troupe becomes involved with the local population, so that we may hear the Just Grievances Against American Imperialism of the people of Okinawa or Japan or wherever Miss Fonda and her colleagues happen to be listening. I found most of this a predictable bore, but it did allow for the film’s only really striking sequence: an anti-American guerrilla theater pageant in the Philippines that momentarily turns revolutionary passion into a romantic gesture of extraordinary beauty.

Otherwise there are a few good things. There is the lovely ballad singing of Rita Martinson (most of the singing, by Len Chandler, isn’t so lovely), some hints at lively routines, an occasional glimpse of deep happiness in eyes of Miss Fonda or of Holly Near. But the spirit of F.T.A. must lie elsewhere, in other times and special places. For all its agility and pressing close-ups, the film doesn’t capture that spirit – or even adequately show the kind of experience that might have let it grow.

Phil Hall, Filmthreat.com, Posted: November 13, 2001

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 "Fuck 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-ass 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.

Dennis Lim, Los Angeles Times, Published: February 22, 2009.

A time capsule of the anti-Vietnam War movement, "FTA" is also a vivid flashback to a world-famous movie star’s stint as a political radical. At the peak of her celebrity, which coincided with the dawning of her political consciousness, Jane Fonda abdicated her Hollywood throne and remade herself as the face of the anti-establishment.

With government agents and the news media watching her every move, she led a vaudeville troupe on a tour of U.S. military bases in 1971 – a trip chronicled in this fascinating documentary, largely unseen since its brief, abortive release and finally available on DVD this week.

In the disc’s only extra, a 20-minute interview, Fonda recounts how the project came about. She and Donald Sutherland, her costar in 1971's "Klute" (which won her an Oscar), were approached by Howard Levy, a doctor who had become an antiwar cause celebre for refusing to train Green Beret medics. He proposed that they put on a corrective to Bob Hope’s gung-ho USO shows, giving voice not just to the growing peace movement but to antiwar sentiment within the ranks of the military.

The FTA troupe staged its first shows in the U.S., with Fonda and Sutherland (who had just played the irreverent Hawkeye in Robert Altman's "MASH") headlining a company that included Peter Boyle and Howard Hesseman. (The all-purpose acronym is short for "Free the Army" and a more profane variation.)

When it came time to embark on the two-week Pacific Rim tour, Fonda assembled a more politically correct lineup that stressed racial and gender parity – equal numbers of black and white, and male and female, performers, including singer Holly Near and comedian Paul Mooney.

Fonda, Sutherland and company stopped off in Hawaii, the Philippines, Okinawa and Japan (where they were initially refused entry). Denied permission to perform on U.S. bases, they set up shop in nearby coffeehouses and other venues, although military officials apparently tried to minimize attendance by publicizing incorrect show times.

All told, the troupe played 21 shows, which were attended by some 64,000 servicemen and women. Many of the male GIs, as Fonda ruefully concedes in the interview, must have been anticipating the Space Age sex kitten from "Barbarella" and not the righteous radical who took the stage in jeans, no makeup and a raised fist.

The show mixes protest songs with broad and bawdy skits, taking potshots at military chauvinism and top-brass privilege. But what it lacks in finesse, it makes up for with a raucous energy. Directed by Francine Parker (who died in 2007), the documentary alternates between the song-and-dance routines and behind-the-scenes footage of soldiers talking candidly to the troupe members about their frustration and anger at the ongoing war and the American presence in the region.

As fate would have it, "FTA" opened the same week in July 1972 that news broke of Fonda’s trip to Hanoi, where she made radio broadcasts for the North Vietnamese regime and was photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft gun. Within a week, the distributor (youth-flick specialist American-International Pictures) had pulled the movie from theaters.

Fonda’s career went into partial eclipse, and she remains to this day a favorite target of the right, but she recovered to win a second Oscar for the 1978 war-veteran drama "Coming Home." For years she quietly has distanced herself from her radical past, which might explain why "FTA," which she co-produced, has been out of circulation for more than three decades.

Its recent re-emergence points to a change of heart and owes much to the efforts of filmmaker David Zeiger, who used footage from "FTA" in ‘Sir! No Sir!,‘ a 2005 documentary about antiwar resistance within the military.

This week’s DVD release was preceded by screenings at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York, where Fonda appeared as part of a fundraiser for Iraq Veterans Against the War.