I’ve always had a soft spot for Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). It isn’t Robin Williams’ best film or his best performance for that matter but it marked a pivotal moment in his career. Up to that point he had done several comedies built around his manic comedic sensibilities that were mostly commercial failures. Only The World According to Garp (1982) hinted at his capacity for mixing comedy and drama and it also scored both with critics and audiences. With Good Morning, Vietnam, Williams gave it another try, teaming up with director Barry Levinson, hot off the comedy Tin Men (1987) and who wisely surrounded the comedian with a rock solid cast of character actors. The result was a bonafide blockbuster (it was #1 at the box office for 9 weeks!) and a genuine crowd pleaser that received several accolades. For me, Good Morning, Vietnam is a fun, engaging film that lets Williams cut loose and do his thing while also attempting to impart a bittersweet romance and a sobering reminder of the war that the United States was losing.
It is 1965 and Airman Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) arrives in Saigon to work as disc jockey for the Armed Forces Radio Service. He’s greeted at the airport by Private First Class Edward Garlick (Forest Whitaker) and right from the get-go Levinson does a nice job of evoking a sense of place by immersing us in the sights and sounds of this exotic city and its inhabitants. Once Cronauer and Garlick arrive at the base we are introduced to a colorful assortment of characters, starting with the strict commanding officers, Lt. Hauk (Bruno Kirby) and Sgt. Major Dickerson (J.T. Walsh). The former considers himself something of a comedian (“Readers Digest is considering publishing two of my jokes.”) but is hopelessly square when it comes to anything remotely funny. The latter is the film’s humorless antagonist who lays down the law with Cronauer early on in the film, shutting up the usually unflappable D.J. through intimidation and actually making him sweat (or is that just the heat?).
Cronauer’s first radio show is a dynamic debut as Williams gets to unleash his crazed stand-up routines with him voicing characters both based on actual people, like Gomer Pyle and Walter Cronkite, and ones that he makes up on the fly. Levinson breaks up the comedian’s whirlwind onslaught with a fantastic collection of period rock music by the likes of the Beach Boys, James Brown, Them, The Supremes and many others that plays over footage of soldiers toiling around Saigon or hanging out at their bases. It is an unorthodox radio show to say the lease as Cronauer mercilessly parodies the United States military and the government with biting political humor that does little to endear him with Dickerson and Hauk, the latter of which reprimands him afterwards.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Barry Levinson film without a few scenes of guys sitting around talking (see Diner and Tin Men) and in Good Morning, Vietnam the place is Jimmy Wah’s, a local G.I. bar (“It’s real homey in an opium kind of way,” Cronauer deadpans upon first entering.) where Cronauer and the other D.J.s hang out. It is rather memorably owned by a man that calls everybody “Earl” and who is obsessed with actor Walter Brennan.
Cronauer finds himself attracted to a young Vietnamese woman named Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana) and becomes a teacher at an English-as-a-second language school in order to get closer to her. The introduction of this setting gives us a little insight into the Vietnamese people as Cronauer begins to interact with Trinh and her family, in particular her brother, Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran). The scene where Cronauer introduces himself to the class is particularly memorable because we see Williams the comedian playing to the hardest room of his career – a group that does not understand English. At first, they are unimpressed and confused but he eventually is able to communicate with them on a basic level. There is a spontaneous feel to these scenes as if what the Vietnamese actors (non-actors?) are saying was unscripted and Williams is simply reacting to whatever they say, eliciting genuine surprise and laughter from the gifted comic. This scene also continues Cronauer’s unorthodox yet effective way of communicating with others as he eschews stuffy text book phrases for common, every day sayings and, of course, curse words.
Director Barry Levinson successfully harnesses the comedian’s wild, manic energy in this film. Williams’ radio monologues (famously adlibbed by the comedian) are the highlights as he cuts loose with his trademark rapid-fire humor (“What’s the difference between the Army and the Cub Scouts? Cub Scouts don’t have heavy artillery.”). He is an actor who needs a strong director to rein him in. His best films are the ones where he collaborated with a director who had their own distinctive vision (Peter Weir, Terry Gilliam and Gus Van Sant) and this one is no different.
Even though Good Morning, Vietnam is essentially a vehicle for Williams, Levinson wisely surrounds him with a strong supporting cast of character actors, like Robert Wuhl, Bruno Kirby and J.T. Walsh. Kirby is excellent as the terminally unfunny and unhip Lt. Hauk. The scene where he temporarily takes over Cronauer’s show with his own brand of comedy is almost painful to watch. There is also an amusing running gag about how no one ever salutes him despite his rank. This film would mark the start of a memorable run of supporting roles in popular comedies like When Harry Met Sally… (1989), The Freshman (1990), and City Slickers (1991).
Walsh proved to be a very credible antagonist to Williams with his sober intensity and gravitas that he brings to the role. Williams is such a force of nature and a larger than life personality that he needs someone who is just as forceful and Walsh does an excellent job as his vindictive superior. Fresh from Oliver Stone’s gritty Vietnam War film Platoon (1986), Forest Whitaker is cast against type as Cronauer’s meek, by-the-book assistant and displays some nice comedic chops in various ways, like the nervous, high-pitched giggle he repeatedly emits upon first meeting Cronauer, or the way he always turns the ignition key when first getting into a jeep with the engine already running.
The first half of Good Morning, Vietnam is the light, entertaining stuff of an anarchic anti-authoritarian comedy as we see Cronauer gleefully breaking all the rules and having fun doing it. He gets into a bit of trouble but nothing major. The second half of the film sees the comedic elements take a back seat in favor of an unrequited romance between Cronauer and Trinh as well as the growing insurgency in Saigon. The tone of the film noticeably darkens when Cronauer narrowly escapes a bomb exploding at Jimmy Wah’s and Levinson doesn’t shy away from depicting the carnage and the ensuing chaos with shots of bloodied victims, both American soldiers and locals, as well as shots of dead bodies lying in the street. It is a shock not only to Cronauer but to us because nothing that came before prepared us for this.
To make matters worse, Cronauer goes on the air and gives his account of what happened without it being approved. Williams does a nice job here, first, in the aftermath of the bombing as he tries to make sense of the carnage, and secondly, when he tries to put on a funny face afterwards on his radio show. His jokes fall flat as the shock of what he saw and experienced sinks in. His defeated facial expression says it all. Mitch Markowitz’s screenplay makes a smooth transition between the two halves of the film by doing it gradually with elements of comedy and drama blending together naturally so that neither one is entirely abandoned in favor of the other. Levinson also shifts the emphasis on locales over the course of the film with most of it set in the army base for the first half and then opening things up in the second half as we see more of Saigon and the surrounding area. The focus also shifts to that of the Vietnamese as we see how Trinh and Tuan live when they take Cronauer to their village. At this point in the film he has gotten tired with being censored and told what to say, what news to report, and what songs he can play. He finds himself spending more time with Tuan and is soon rejected by Trinh, coming to the sobering realization that they never really had a chance to become romantically involved in the first place.
Adrian Cronauer got his start as a radio broadcaster when he helped start the University of Pittsburgh’s campus radio station. By 1962, he was majoring in broadcasting at the American University in Washington, D.C. He found himself eligible for the draft and decided to volunteer for the Air Force with his first choice being flight training. However, he didn’t want to make the kind of time commitment necessary and entered training for broadcasting and media operations. He successfully completed it and was transferred to an Armed Forces Radio station in Greece. He had one year left of his enlistment and was given a change of assignment with the option of either going back home to the United States, where he would work on training films, or broadcast live to American soldiers in either South Korea or South Vietnam. He chose Vietnam.
In 1979, Adrian Cronauer and one of his old military buddies Ben Moses were discussing the success of television shows M*A*S*H and WKRP in Cincinnati. They thought about creating a sitcom that fused the two shows together – a comedy based on U.S. armed forces radio. They wrote a treatment and pitched it to the networks but none of them were interested because Vietnam wasn’t considered very funny at the time. So, they put the treatment away until years later when they decided to change it from a sitcom to a movie of the week and sent it to Robin Williams’ manager.
Williams read the script and loved it. He suggested they make it into a feature film. He said in an interview, “It’s closer to me than anything I’ve ever done. It’s very close to home.” However, he couldn’t find a director to make it into a film. At some point, he met Barry Levinson who read it and liked the challenge of showcasing Williams’ acting abilities with his comedic sensibilities.
To capture Williams’ wild improvisations during the radio sequences Levinson used three cameras running at the same time. The only things scripting for these sequences was a line about cappuccino, an impression of Walter Cronkite, and a line about the Vietnam War being brought to us by the same people who brought us the Korean War – the rest was Williams riffing. As Levinson pointed out in an interview, “It’s one thing to do improvisation, it’s another thing to do period improvisation.” The comedian had done his homework, reading about the country, watching documentaries about the war and talking to people who had been there.
Good Morning, Vietnam was based very loosely on Adrian Cronauer’s experiences in Vietnam. He was not as funny or as wild as Williams, he butted heads with military censors once, and rebelled against the military’s “Polka Hour” programming with Top 40 music like Frank Sinatra. Unlike Williams’ version of Cronauer, the real one’s tour was significantly longer.
Good Morning, Vietnam received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Good Morning, Vietnam works as straight comedy and as a Vietnam-era MASH, and even the movie's love story has its own bittersweet integrity.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised Williams’ performance: “Mr. Williams's performance, though it's full of uproarious comedy, is the work of an accomplished actor. Good Morning, Vietnam is one man's tour de force.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “The first comedy about that war, Good Morning, Vietnam manages to be uproariously funny without ignoring or trivializing the tragedy. It's awkwardly contrived here and there, especially during its recon patrols into Vietnamese life, but for the most part Mitch Markowitz's skeletal script is smart enough to dig in, hunker down and stay out of Robin Williams' line of fire.” However, in his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson felt that the film was “a peculiar hybrid – a Robin Williams concert movie welded clumsily onto the plot from an old Danny Kaye picture. And neither half works.”
The successful run Good Morning, Vietnam enjoyed and the accolades Williams received emboldened him to try several other comedy-drama hybrids, most notably Dead Poets Society (1989), The Fisher King (1991) and Good Will Hunting (1997), which resulted in an Academy Award. Often cited as the first Vietnam War comedy (soon followed by Air America in 1990), it is interesting to note that the film came out the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s nihilistic take on the conflict, Full Metal Jacket but the two films couldn’t be further apart in their approaches. Along with Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth (1993), Good Morning, Vietnam attempted to give a human dimension to the Vietnamese people. Unlike many other Vietnam War films of the 1980s, the Vietnamese are not portrayed as some anonymous enemy but real people with their own distinctive personalities. If anything, Levinson’s film personalizes the Vietnam War and questions, in its own way, what exactly the U.S. was doing there in the first place while delivering an entertaining story as well.