Late into the Vietnam War, soldiers were beginning to have enough. Several anti-war GI groups had formed in the states, where they circulated underground newspapers and planned protests. Despite being under the thumb of the military, a number of soldiers still overseas aligned themselves with the antiwar moment. Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland had just finished working together on Klute when they decided to team up and do a show that was the antithesis of Bob Hope’s patriotic tour. F.T.A. is the name of the show and the film made of it (Foxtrot, Tango, Alpha, or, Fuck the Army). The show combined comedy skits and music, featuring a number of comedians, actors, and musicians. Seeing their work in the documentary proves particularly interesting in the realm of grassroots protest, but not so much the realm of genuine entertainment.
The show they put on is messy, ham-fisted, and very shambolic, and the overall potency is mixed. Many of the songs are genuine and hard-edged in their message while also being sometimes uncomfortably corny. However, this corniness may very well be intentional, considering their target of mockery, the vaudevillian treacle of Bob Hope. Some of the songs, while not chart-topper caliber, are more transgressive, combining comedy with true edge and rage, and even become somewhat catchy. No song strikes such an unusual balance of annoyance, righteousness, and occasional listenability as “My Ass is Mine”, where folk singer Len Chandler lists the abuses of the army. “First they draft your ass, they uniform your ass, and then they bust your ass, and then they brig your ass, and then they ship your ass, and then they shoot your ass. Well, they can kiss my ass.”
The actual comedy skits form the weakest segments of the show, never ascending to more than diet M*A*S*H homages (the irony of the Sutherland connection is noted). The strongest skit, disappointingly brief, has Sutherland commenting on an unseen offensive in the voice of a sportscaster who might have been an auctioneer in a former life. The bit is genuinely clever and amusing, but also impressive is Sutherland’s total control— his wide, penetrative eyes, alive and lucid, as he rattles off tongue twister after tongue twister with a preternatural cool. More interesting are the segments that show the group interacting with soldiers and recording their stories, their hardships, and their grievances as Sutherland, Fonda and the troupe listen attentively.
In this way, the strongest voices are of the unseen people—the soldiers, the lower profile musicians, and especially the Vietnamese who talk and sing for the show. Among the best songs are sung in other languages, by folk groups across Asia tormented by U.S. interventionism and imperialism. It goes to show that celebrities are good organizers but not necessarily the best representatives.
F.T.A. is a film and project that resists mockery or heavy criticism. It earned a right to exist as a record of antiwar and pacifist action, something that just doesn’t seem as bustling and radical, today, despite ongoing conflict and war crimes. Still, F.T.A. doesn’t make for the most powerful viewing, amounting to the status of a quirky extra on a DVD release of Hearts and Minds or even Ken Burns’ recent series on Vietnam. I once saw a Brechtian style play about 9/11 that was absolute trash, and coming out of the theater and seeing all the sobbing audience members put me, who found myself stifling laughter during the show, in a strange position. It’s a sad truth that a lot of political variety shows are bad, even when they’re good. | Nic Champion
F.T.A. comes with an introduction by Jane Fonda and Sir! No Sir!, a 2005 documentary by David Zeiger.