Film & TV

Jane Fonda Cultivates the Saplings of Sedition

Jane Fonda in FTA (Kino Lorber)
FTA, her anti-war documentary, reveals the roots of modern political gaffes.

In step with Kamala Harris’ Memorial Day gaffe — urging Americans  to “enjoy the long weekend” — Jane Fonda’s film FTA (from 1972, but newly released on Blu-Ray by KINO) continues the anti-military sentiment. The film’s title acronym indicates other meanings than “Free the Army.” It takes sophomoric aim at America’s organized self-defense, no different from today’s more serious executive-branch gaffes.

In 1970, right after filming the movie Klute, the recently politicized Fonda put together a musical-comedy anti-war sketch show to tour U.S. military bases and encourage soldiers, many en route to fight in Vietnam, to rebel against their country and dissent from their mission.

Ostensibly, Fonda’s purpose was to protest the war. But what makes FTA joltingly contemporary is that its stark irreverence toward the military so closely resembles current anti-police opinion. The FTA skits, written by such Sixties notables as Jules Feiffer and Herb Gardner, exceed rebellious “free speech”; they sound unmistakably subversive. (Donald Sutherland contributes a terrorist threat written by Hollywood’s reliably snide Communist sympathizer Dalton Trumbo.)

Here are the saplings of sedition we see blooming today (although Millennial comedians seem as stunted as biased journalists). The FTA tour is what emboldened Fonda in 1972 to make her infamous trek to North Vietnam, where fraternization with the enemy (she posed on an anti-aircraft gun) won her the traitor’s nickname “Hanoi Jane.” Those sorrowful events make FTA aggravating and difficult to watch.

Directed by the late Francine Parker, who routinely mixed stage and audience shots with documentary interviews, the movie doesn’t showcase light-hearted commedia della guerra (although Fonda is radiant, fully into the bad-mannered jibes). What comes through now is the vehemence and sulky confusion of a generation’s anti-American snit.

The problem is that Fonda and her cohorts (Klute co-star Sutherland, singers Len Chandler and Rita Martinson, comedian Paul Mooney, and others) are making superficial political arguments rather than the moral argument of pacifists. They flout the benefits of American government — the Bill of Rights — that they refuse to recognize or repay, yet blithely take for granted. This so-called movement pretends to be anti-war when its effect is, essentially, naïve.

The FTA players avoid debate with others (at one point evicting some rowdy GIs) and then use the insidious strategy of pitting Americans against one another — the ploy that Kamala Harris and Joe Biden have revived. Race, then as always, is at the handle end of this politically progressive cudgel.

FTA’s most striking sequences alternate two racially segregated rap sessions held by black and white enlisted men stationed at Iwakuni, Japan. Neither group knows why they’re there. One soldier complains about being thousands of miles from home and conflates that with the grunt’s standard dissatisfaction about military bureaucracy. After drinking and smoking with Fonda and her filmmaker friends, he smiles, “I was the silent majority until today.”

Despite Fonda’s candid, self-righteous entreaties 50 years later, these FTA skits (including Martinson’s melodious yet wickedly deceptive “Soldier, We Love You” song and “Insubordination,” Fonda’s two-step with Holly Near) actually mask the personal discontent that the performers suffer.

Obvious symptoms of social and psychological dysfunction (same as found in BLM zealots) may explain why FTA is falsely serious and mostly unfunny. Fonda has proven herself a great actress, the best of her era alongside the also politically active Vanessa Redgrave (both bleeding hearts refuse to recognize communism for what it is), but the truth is that Fonda could attract crowds of G.I.s because she had starred in Roger Vadim’s 1968 sci-fi sex farce Barbarella. She was the most curvaceous figure in Sixties Hollywood, outclassing Joey Heatherton, Raquel Welch, and Ann-Margret who had appeared on Bob Hope’s USO tours. But ironically, Barbarella also exposes Fonda’s utter humorlessness, and FTA confirms it.

FTA premiered the same week as Fonda’s Hanoi stunt, was quickly yanked from theaters, and went undistributed since. That might have saved Fonda’s career, which otherwise would have been overwhelmed by this film’s undeniable hatefulness. FTA is the kind of well-intended but misguided lark that used to be called guerrilla theater. Now that term aptly applies to mainstream corporate media.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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