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Review: Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Directed by: Barry Levinson

Premise: Based on a true story. Set during the Vietnam War, rebellious army radio DJ Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) is assigned to a US Armed Services Radio station in Saigon and comes into conflict with his commanding officer (J.T. Walsh).

What Works: Good Morning, Vietnam is the kind of film that is produced and sold as what’s usually referred to as a “star vehicle.” That is, a concept or a script is paired with a major Hollywood star with the hope of capitalizing on that actor’s talents and public image. As a result the movie is usually fashioned (and in some cases the script is refashioned) in order to suit the lead actor. Good Morning, Vietnam was a star vehicle for Robin Williams; although it was based on a true story, the filmmakers took major liberties with the facts in order to tailor the script to Williams’ talents. Given that this is based on a true story, the ethics of altering the facts is a matter worthy of debate. But setting that aside, Good Morning, Vietnam is exactly the movie that its filmmakers intended to make. If Robin Williams’ filmography had to be condensed to a single motion picture, this is it. The first half of the movie showcases his comedy and, if it’s not obvious from the movie itself, much of Williams’ on-air bits were of the actor’s own making. Putting Williams in a radio booth is essentially the same as putting him on stage; there are no limitations of plot or character, just an empty space into which the actor can cast his comic prodigiousness. The comedy of Robin Williams is most widely recognized for its maniacal energy and free association but there is another critical aspect to his style and it’s very important to Good Morning, Vietnam. Williams’ comedy possessed a dark undercurren t and he regularly made his own struggles with depression and substance abuse a part of his act. Equivalently In this movie, he is able to take the war that is going on just out of sight—and is gradually creeping closer to the radio station—and put a comic spin on it. Although the first half of Good Morning, Vietnam is quite funny and even though the movie is frequently categorized as a comedy, it features a stunning reversal in its second half as Adrian Cronauer faces the devastation of the war. After this reversal, Robin Williams is called upon to deliver a performance in the second half of the movie that is as dramatic as the first half was humorous and the actor does that by conveying a tremendous amount of pathos without resorting to sentimentality. As Cronauer, Robin Williams plays a moral person in a situation where moral distinctions are blurred. It’s that juxtaposition and entanglement of comedy and tragedy that makes Good Morning, Vietnam the essential Robin Williams feature film.

What Doesn’t: Good Morning, Vietnam showcases Robin Williams’ talents, sometimes to a fault. Williams’ bits work in and of themselves but the filmmakers tend to overindulge their star. His radio performances are followed by comedic moments among the military staff which are followed by more comedy among the Vietnamese population. The overreliance on Robin Williams’ shtick in the first half of Good Morning, Vietnam is understandable because the filmmakers are setting up the character and the audience for a major reversal. But Williams comes just just short of overwhelming the movie. Good Morning, Vietnam was released in the late 1980s amid a flurry of titles about that war including Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Hamburger Hill. Of the Vietnam War films produced at this time (and since), nearly all possess the same blind spot: the Vietnamese people are reduced to extras and supporting characters in a story that takes place amid their own civil war. To its credit, Good Morning, Vietnam gives some voice to the local people but the relationship between Cronauer and a young Vietnamese woman (Chintara Sukapatana) never really develops into anything interesting. 

DVD extras: Production diary, deleted scene, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Robin Williams had a long and varied career with some very good films offset by some very bad ones. Good Morning, Vietnam is at least among the actor’s better titles and it showcases the defining performance of his career.

Episode: #504 (August 17, 2014)