Self-styled “political vaudeville” troupe F.T.A. (an acronym that alternately stands for “Free The Army” or “Fuck The Army”) was something out of Rush Limbaugh’s worst nightmare: a Jane Fonda-led band of progressive, feminist, class-conscious show-biz pranksters who traveled far and wide performing anti-war sketches and songs in front of sympathetic soldiers at the height of the Vietnam era. F.T.A. brought the anti-war movement and the anarchic spirit of the Yippies to soldiers fighting and dying for a cause many didn’t believe in. The lefty mirth-makers—whose ranks included Holly Near, Paul Mooney, and Donald Sutherland—functioned as a countercultural antidote to the glib one-liners, T&A, and knee-jerk pro-establishment ideology of Bob Hope and the USO. If Hope represented the powerful establishment, F.T.A. set out to represent the people.
1972’s F.T.A. documented the controversial tour for posterity, but it was pulled from theaters after only a week under mysterious circumstances, and it more or less disappeared until Docurama put it out on DVD. In the progressive spirit of the time, the film is split more or less evenly between extended rap sessions where soldiers air their grievances, and footage of the troupe performing soldier-friendly songs and sketches with a strong, crowd-pleasing anti-authoritarian bent. Though dated and didactic, F.T.A. has enormous contemporary resonance thanks to Iraq. In fact, the film was excerpted in Sir! No Sir!, a well-received 2005 documentary about the anti-war movement within the military during Vietnam that commented unmistakably on an unpopular war of a more recent vintage.
F.T.A.’s songs and shtick often devolve into heavy-handed sloganeering with shrill language straight out of the lefty activist handbook, complete with the requisite denunciations of imperialism and genocidal warmongering. Though it’s often as subtle as a chainsaw, F.T.A. is most powerful during hushed moments that combine passionate political engagement with breathtaking artistry, like Donald Sutherland reading from Dalton Trumbo’s seminal anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun.The film’s most shattering sequence finds Rita Martinson singing “Soldier We Love You” before a spellbound crowd in a voice radiating tenderness and empathy. Her heart-tugging ballad eloquently expresses the show’s most resonant, timely theme: Love the soldier, hate the war.
Key features: A candid, fascinating interview with Fonda that delves into the show’s history, evolution, and politics.