'F.T.A.': Jane Fonda And Donald Sutherland's Unearthed Anti-War Film Teach Us What Being Cancelled Really Looks Like [Review]

When sponsors of right-wing grievance politics piss their britches over “cancel culture,” a term applied so broadly that it lacks any substantive meaning, they’re always talking about society slamming the door shut on arcane, draconian mores engineered to inflict harm on marginalized people and maintain a status quo benefitting the few over the many. It’s called “white supremacist patriarchy.” So when dimwits and scumbags like Ted Cruz, Kevin McCarthy, Ben Shapiro, and Stephen L. Miller flip out over, say, Mr. Potato Head going (sort of) gender neutral, or Gina Carano getting canned by Disney for spreading antisemitism, or Dr. Seuss Enterprises opting to no longer print a handful of the author’s books on account of racism, they’re flipping out over the loss of their right to bigotry and ignorance. They don’t know what being canceled actually means.

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Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland do. For that matter so does everyone involved in the production of “F.T.A.,” the documentary Francine Parker shot on tour with the FTA Show: An antiwar road show created in 1970 to vocalize GI resistance to the Vietnam War, and also to flip the bird at Bob Hope’s rah rah jingoistic USO Show. American International Pictures release “F.T.A.” in July of 1972, the same month Fonda visited Hanoi and wound up getting cajoled into posing for her infamous photo atop an anti-aircraft battery; within a week of circulation, they unceremoniously yanked it, and apparently destroyed most prints of the film just for good measure. Nearly 50 years later, “F.T.A.” is the subject of a new restoration by IndieCollect, which gives audiences a chance to see exactly what AIP, and quite possibly the U.S. government, wanted to keep us from seeing.

To a point, the “what” is unsurprising. Nothing new and inflammatory is revealed here, though we in 2021 have the long view, and so it stands to reason that had the movie actually enjoyed full theatrical distribution in the 1970s, its message would have actually left an indent on the American consciousness. The United States war machine chews up the working class and the underprivileged and spits them out into body bags. “F.T.A.” doesn’t clarify this horrible truth through graphic imagery but through the strength of the FTA Show participants’ convictions. From Hawaii to The Philippines to Okinawa to Japan, the tour meets with crowds of GIs clapping, cheering, singing along to songs performed by Rita Martinson and Len Chandler, skits by Fonda, Sutherland, and Michael Alaimo, and cross pollination throughout the entire production. 

The FTA Show is a work of harmony, and “F.T.A.” is as much about capturing the show itself as it is about demonstrating the united purpose driving it as well as the antiwar GI movement. Frankly, the film is at its best when focused on the GIs instead of concert footage; the raucous energy of the sketches and the earnest, righteous anger of the folk tunes both translate well enough on screen, but being as the GIs are the revue’s raison d’être while the comedy and music are window dressing by comparison, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that tape from the shows themselves make less of an impression than off the cuff conversations with the soldiers themselves. Their rank disgust with their country and their cause, which isn’t their cause at all but their country’s cause, is tainted oxygen we all must breathe for each moment we spend hearing them speak openly, frankly, and harshly about their contempt for American imperialism. Try fighting in an unpopular war politicians swear they want to end but do nothing to end. You’d lose your taste for the stars and stripes, too. 

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As a sign of the times, hearing the troops’ disillusionment vocalized is like a tonic to the ears. Today, anyone enlisted in one of the many branches of America’s armed forces who blows a whistle or renders critique of how their branch operates is deemed a traitor by the right-wing smear apparatus; patriotism is defined as blindly saluting the flag and thoughtlessly following orders. (For bonus points, you may also slap a rah-rah bumper sticker collage on your 4×4 and buy guns for the whole family, even the dog.) Recall, for example, the fate of Alexander Vindman, or that Eddie Gallagher’s accusers were tarred and feathered for bringing to national attention his psychopathy. How would a 2021 “F.T.A.” equivalent fare given the brutish replies to American servicemen and women who demand justice from the system they serve? Badly. 

The film’s time warp effect functions as release from the willful derangement of today’s Republican establishment compared to yesterday’s: Things weren’t good in 1970, no sir, but they were different. It’s true that American International Pictures gave “F.T.A.” no oxygen to breathe, so how different is a question worth considering, but seeing these GIs speak on camera to Fonda and Sutherland about the callous atrocities of their own government, and realizing the courage that takes, is cathartic anyways. The military industrial complex isn’t indestructible. It isn’t infallible. It historically doesn’t inspire such universal loyalty that brave and upright individuals won’t speak out against the war crimes it commits. The level of frank disclosures among the GI affixes a prevailing sense of  optimism at “F.T.A.”s center, even if the optimism today feels like a dream.

Stepping back nearly 5 decades has the nice side benefit of letting us revisit Fonda and Sutherland in their post-“Klute” days, when she had just reinvented herself and he had just established himself as a swaggering antiauthoritarian wiseass. But most of all, the chance to spend 90 or so minutes in Fonda’s orbit offers a welcome reminder of what cancellation actually means. For her, and for “F.T.A.,” it means silence. Bravo to the folks responsible for putting the film under a spotlight at a moment where a lesson in genuine cancellation is so desperately needed. [B]