Preamble: “This film was made in association with the servicewomen and men stationed on the United States bases of the Pacific Rim, together with their friends whose lands they presently occupy.”
Accepting his Oscar for Best Actor, Sean Penn jokingly referred to the Academy as lovers of “commies and homos.” It’s a tribute to the low level of politics among our cultural workers today that Sean Penn would be surprised at acknowledgement of his performance. The Academy loves movies about exceptional heroes, whether they are overcoming physical disabilities, sports team segregation, the Holocaust, or the Roman Empire.
The entertainment industrial complex also loves it when its celebrities serve as a prophylactic for US humanitarian imperialism in countries like Sudan or Tibet. (Poor Rose McGowan, conversely, hasn’t been heard or seen since expressing understanding for what motivated men and women in Ireland to join the IRA.)
All of which brings us to the opposite end of the movie food chain, far from the heights of Oscardom: FTA, Francine Parker’s documentary about the “Free the Army” tour. Washington and Wall Street long ago erased this movie. The miracle of globalized media today, however, means we can sit at home and watch it on DVD or its showing on that greener-than-green parrot cage called the Sundance Channel.
What strikes the viewer first about FTA is the humility, sense of proportion, and optimism the film has about events it depicts. We are a long way here from the old Michael Moore bazooka and the longeurs of Ken Burns, Inc.
There are many similarities between FTA and the great rock concert documentaries of the same period: only a few lines of narration for context, and then getting out of the way of the performances.
FTA the movie was long ago blacklisted from theaters, just as FTA the traveling political musical extravaganza was blacklisted from history. A key part of the “culture war” trumpeted by media and academic hacks of the Bill Bennett-David Horowitz-Rush Limbaugh variety (and which is itself part of a larger 30 year war against the gains of the labor, civil rights, women’s, and anti-war movements) is the depiction of the those opposed to the Vietnam War as “stabbing our troops in the back.” One tonic effect of FTA‘s DVD release and Sundance showing is to put the lie to that libel. As Washington’s invasion and war against the people of Vietnam proceeded, one of the greatest concentrations of anti-war sentiment and activism was found among GIs themselves. The script for the FTA revue itself was drawn exclusively from material GIs published in their own anti-war newspapers.
FTA was the product of a flourishing anti-war culture. Today we see this culture boiled down to a History Channel “flower power” documentary, histories like Tom Brokaw’s Boom, and the memoirs of Senators and ex-Senators like John Kerry and Bob Kerry. But Vietnam’s war of independence at its height inspired militants around the world, from Che Guevara’s guerillas to the 1968 strikers in France.
One of the great pleasures of FTA is the forthright energy of the performers and their audience. The GIs heard their own thoughts — salty, sarcastic, and full of gallows humor and solidarity at the same time — repeated back to them. The leaps of consciousness over just a few years as they rejected each rationale of the Washington war machine confirmed the anti-war movement’s strategy of orienting to these “workers in uniform.”
The cast of the FTA revue is filled with gifted performers. They continued with their artistic careers after the U.S. anti-war tide receded. It is a pleasure to see them in their youth, energized by work that gave shape to the feelings of the immense majority. Between concerts they marched in solidarity with local activists protesting Washington’s devastating “military base colonialism” in the Philippines, Okinawa, and Japan.
Today one of the movie FTA‘s great strengths is its potential as a recruiting tool. It is the perfect length to have classes, meetings, and potlucks built around it. The moral authority of the movie is without equal: completely ignoring the pundits and the bi-partisan Wall Street war party in Washington, it lets the anti-war GIs speak for themselves.
Jay Rothermel lives in Cleveland, Ohio.