GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM

Wakeup Call, Williams Style

1965 was the year when, as a result of the Congressional Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, American military buildup in Vietnam began in earnest, and troop strength grew by a factor of no less than eight; from 23,000 at the beginning of the year to roughly 184,000 at the end. 1965 was also the year when a new AFN DJ arrived in Saigon, which over the course of that same year would transform itself from a sleepy French-Vietnamese colonial town into the nightmare it has since come to be in the memory of countless vets.

The new DJ in question was Adrian Cronauer; fresh from an assignment in Greece.

While the idea for a fictionalized account of his Vietnam experience was Cronauer’s own, fueled by the popularity of M*A*S*H, the script for Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam was ultimately penned by screenwriter Mitch Markowitz with only some input from Cronauer himself, who has since gone out of his way to underline the fictional nature of the account and stress that his true stance was not so much anti-military as “anti-stupidity.” Thus, the film has to be taken with a considerable grain of salt; both as far as the portrayal of 1960s’ armed forces radio and as far as the movie’s plot is concerned. But that doesn’t make it any less poignant; nor does it take away one iota of Robin Williams‘s performance as Cronauer: Indeed, the role of an irreverent, unstoppable DJ seemed tailor-made for Williams, who had burst onto the scene with his inimitable brand of lightning-quick ad-libbing ten years earlier in Mork & Mindy – and of course, all of Cronauer’s hilarious broadcasts in this movie are ad-libbed, too.

The film follows Adrian Cronauer from his arrival in Saigon in the spring of 1965 to his forced departure about a half year later (although the real Cronauer in fact stayed for a year and was not forced out but left when his regular tour of duty was over). While a comedy, and although not trying to be anywhere near the “definitive” take on Vietnam, it does take a close look at the year when the conflict escalated and, in particular, at the resulting toll on human relations. Robin Williams earned his first of to date four well-deserved Academy Award nominations for this role (the others were for Dead Poets Society [1989], The Fisher King [1991] and Good Will Hunting [1997], the movie for which he finally scored on Oscar night). And in his inimitable way he provides pointed comic relief not only over the microphone but also, and always with a unique ear for the situation’s mood, whenever the script would otherwise threaten to veer off into melodrama; such as after his discovery that his Vietnamese friend Tuan is actually a Viet Cong fighter named Phan Duc To (“It’s unbelievable. Five months in Saigon, and my best friend turns out to be a V.C. This will not look good on a resume!!”); and in scenes that would otherwise be burdened with a bit too much cliché and / or deliberately funny writing, such as the conference after Cronauer’s first broadcast, where Bruno Kirby (Lieutenant Hauk) gets to deliver such gems as “Don’t say that the weather is the same all the time here, because it’s not; in fact, it’s two degrees cooler today than yesterday” and “I hate the fact that you people never salute me – I’m a lieutenant, and I would like salutes occasionally. That’s what being a higher rank is all about.” Even if Kirby himself gets to make up for these a little later in the same scene with the comment “We are not going to escalate [Vietnam into] a whole war so we can get a big name comedian” (Bob Hope who, as the men have informed him, does not “play police actions”), it takes Williams‘s/Cronauer’s final weaving of the lieutenant’s preferred abbreviations into a single sentence to truly put the finishing touch on the scene.

Although Good Morning Vietnam is clearly first and foremost a star vehicle for Robin Williams, he is joined by an outstanding supporting cast, including inter alia, besides Bruno Kirby, Forest Whitaker as Cronauer’s good-natured sidekick PFC Montesque Garlick, the ever-reliable J.T. Walsh as his second great nemesis, Sergeant Major Dickerson (whose stock character of a straight-laced white middle class guy would probably not have come off convincingly as a villain vis-à-vis anybody but Robin Williams) and, in particular, Tung Thanh Tran as Tuan and Chintara Sukapatana as his sister Trinh: Her plea with Cronauer not (even) to seek her friendship, let alone more, because for her such an association with a man (particularly a foreigner) is culturally unacceptable, is one of the movie’s most quietly powerful scenes. Exceptional is further Peter Sova’s cinematography, which convincingly captures the daily realities of a city and a country on the brink of an all-out war, and is brilliantly complimented by the editing, which in turn also uses the soundtrack – more or less a mid-1960s “greatest hits” compilation – to maximum effect; be it in framing daily military routine, the soldiers’ enjoyment of Cronauer’s style of broadcasting or combat action: Indeed, hardly any image could make a more powerful statement on the cruel absurdity of war than seeing a village blown up to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s It’s a Wonderful World.

Thus, Good Morning Vietnam is in its own way as poignant a wakeup call as any other movie about Vietnam – or about World War II, or any other war for that matter. It deservedly netted the Political Film Society’s 1989 Peace Award, in addition to Robin Williams‘s Oscar nomination and his Golden Globe and American Comedy awards, as well as the movie’s ASCAP soundtrack award. And it certainly bears revisiting – for its overall quality, for Robin Williams‘s performance, and also for lessons learned and deserving never to be forgotten.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Touchstone Pictures (1987)
  • Director: Barry Levinson
  • Producers: Larry Brezner & Mark Johnson
  • Screenplay: Mitch Markowitz
  • Music: Alex North
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Peter Sova
Cast
  • Robin Williams: Adrian Cronauer
  • Tung Thanh Tran: Tuan
  • Chintara Sukapatana: Trinh
  • Forest Whitaker: Edward Garlick
  • Bruno Kirby: Lieutenant Steven Hauk
  • J.T. Walsh: Sergeant Major Dickerson
  • Robert Wuhl: Marty Lee Dreiwitz
  • Noble Willingham: General Taylor
  • Richard Edson: Private Abersold
  • Juney Smith: Phil McPherson
  • Richard Portnow: Dan ‘The Man’ Levitan
  • Floyd Vivino: Eddie Kirk
  • Cu Ba Nguyen: Jimmy Wah

 

Major Awards and Honors

Golden Globe Awards
(Hollywood Foreign Press Association) (1988)
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical: Robin Williams
Political Film Society (USA) ( 1989)
  • Peace Award
  • Special Award
American Comedy Awards (1988)
  • Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture (Leading Role): Robin Williams
Grammy Awards (USA) (1989)
  • Best Comedy Recording: Robin Williams
ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards (1989)
  • Top Box Office Films: Alex North

 

Links

 

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