Mar 24, 2021

Theater Streaming: Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland Fight the Power in Vietnam-era Documentary F.T.A. (1972)

Over the past few years of intensifying chaos in our world, I’ve often thought about the interviews Donald Sutherland gave to promote The Hunger Games, the first film in a franchise for which he portrayed the insidious President Snow. It was 2014 and he hoped that the film’s message would inspire young people to become “more politically aware.” It wasn’t long that reality, rather than cinema, brought that shift. 

As can be seen in the newly-restored and long obscure documentary F.T.A. (1972) (meaning: Free the Army or occasionally another more profane 'F' word), Sutherland has long been in the fight himself, much like his costar Jane Fonda. The film documents how an anti-war musical, comedy and dramatic performance troop, a sort of antidote to the cheerfully oblivious USO shows, led by Sutherland and Fonda on a tour of the US and Pacific Rim bases, brought comfort to members of the military who opposed the Vietnam War. 

Until now, F.T.A. has been difficult to see. The film was taken out of release only a week after it was released. According to director Francine Parker, that was due to a call from the White House. 

The restoration includes a new introduction by Jane Fonda which helps to put the film in context. She explains that she was challenged by GIs to get involved in the anti-war movement and that she accepted because she saw a significant resistance to US involvement in Vietnam within the military.

It’s a remarkable film in the way it respects the goal of Fonda, Sutherland, and company to focus on the needs and voices of the military members who question the actions of their government and the local activists in the places where they are stationed. They often take a back seat to the voices around them, thought notably taking the heat whenever there is government resistance or a disruptive audience member. It was gratifying to see Okinawan folk artists singing their protest songs and the troop members taking the time to listen to the concerns of their military audience. 

Fonda is particularly adept at switching roles, from vigorous spokesperson to empathetic listener. She speaks with a confidence and authority that was and continues to be challenging for many to accept from a woman and that she’s kept her intensity fresh for so many decades is inspiring. Here you also get the rare chance to observe her taking in GI stories, asking questions, and carefully processing what she hears with compassion and intelligence. This is a wealthy star who could have lived in uncomplicated luxury and instead has risked her safety and reputation throughout her whole adult life to fight for a better world. 

While Sutherland is less prominent in the film, it is clear he was committed to playing a supportive role in the resistance and understood the power in showing up and providing a platform for the voices that needed it. He’s always quietly mesmerizing when he does have the spotlight, as when he recites a passage from Johnny Got His Gun, demonstrating a perfect intersection between his dedication to his craft and his desire for justice.

The troop is appealing in its diversity and enthusiasm (members included Holly Near, Paul Mooney, and Rita Martinson). Folk singer and civil rights activist Len Chandler is a stand-out both for his musical talent and invigorating revolutionary zeal. Chandler is a great example of the spirit of the troop, holding up lyrics for a nervous military performer, enthusiastically boosting sing-alongs, listening supportively to the concerns of young black men understandably resistant to invading another country when they are not supported at home, and reveling in the community feeling meant to make those who resist feel less frightened and alone. 

The film has an unusual effect today. It is very much of its time, with artists hollering folk tunes, shouting for the release of Angela Davis from prison, and flashing peace signs, but all of the issues the artists, military personnel, and locals discuss are as pressing today as they were then. In observing a sketch where a white doctor beholds a heavily pregnant black woman and questions her condition, it’s chilling to think how that kind of disbelief is still dangerously prevalent in the medical community and continues to endanger lives. 

While it's frustrating to realize how long people have been fighting for the same issues, it's encouraging to think of the tenacity of some of these life-long activists. If Jane Fonda is still going. If Donald Sutherland is still going. If Angela Davis is still going. Then we can keep it up too. F.T.A. reinforces the importance of compassion and community in that fight. 

F.T.A. is streaming virtually via Kino Marquee . 

Many thanks to Kino for providing access to the film for review.

All photos courtesy of Kino.

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