This fascinating documentary is a time capsule from 1971. It follows Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland and the rest of the theatrical troupe Free Theater Associates around America’s Pacific army bases as they perform an anti-war comedy show for the troops. Fonda and Sutherland had just finished working together on Klute and were both anti-war activists. All the skits were taken from military newspaper stories and as you can see in the film, it was a huge hit with the soldiers, many of whom had become anti-war supporters despite still being in the military. The film cuts back and forth between the performances on stage and groups of soldiers talking about their experiences in Viet Nam and the military in general. Black soldiers talk about the racism. Women talk about the sexism. They all talk about the problem of being in a war that nobody wants. It all feels way too familiar. 

The shows were not actually on military bases for obvious reasons but nearby enough for the soldiers to see them. FTA may have been an acronym for Free Theater Associates, but every serviceman also knew it meant F*@# the Army. Much of the humor of the show is very dark, but it definitely struck a chord with the audience. Unlike the popular Bob Hope USO tour shows, this one was anti-establishment, anti-military industrial complex, and movement building in design.

There’s no real plot to the film and the footage is very raw. But as a snapshot of time and place, it’s enlightening. I had no idea there were so many anti-war GIs at that time. And Donald Sutherland is amazing, particularly when he reads from Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun at the end of the film.

FTA initially opened in 1972, but for only a week before it was pulled from theaters and disappeared. Nixon may have had a hand in it. But more likely it was Jane Fonda’s famously controversial visit to Hanoi that year just as the film opened that scuttled it. This newly restored version was underwritten by the Hollywood Foreign Press who feted Fonda just a few days ago at the Golden Globes. It’s available for streaming starting March 5 on Kino Now.



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