Generally speaking Robin Williams has worked in two modes throughout his movie career: very dramatic or extremely comedic. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) mostly goes for his stand-up comedic persona to great effect as he plays a radio DJ entertaining American troops, but also occasionally veers into dramatic territory since it takes place during a war. The result is a movie filled with many laugh-out-loud moments, especially if you are a fan of Williams’ material, and with some moments that have smart things to say about the complexity of war.
Since this movie came out one year after I was born I of course missed it when it came out in theatres, but my parents did not and had a lot of laughs. When it was playing on TV back in Quebec a about 10 years ago my mom especially recommended it, emphasizing the film’s signature line “Gooood Morning, VIETNAM!” This is indeed a nice classic to watch with your family, but I am pretty sure we had missed the beginning so I watched it again last week on Netflix to refresh my memory. Just as funny the second time and I imagine the third time as well.
The movie is loosely based on the experiences of airman Adrian Cronauer (Williams), who in 1965 was relocated from Greece to Vietnam to work as a DJ for the armed forces just before the conflict was about to really escalate. Cronauer is greeted with enthusiasm from most of the staff at the radio station, especially private Edward Garlick (Forrest Whitaker) who really connects with Cronauer’s irreverent sense of humour.
Indeed once you put a microphone in front of Cronauer he unleashes a barrage of energy that has troops bending over with laughter. Unfortunately not everyone appreciates his brand of humour, especially Lieutenant Steven Hauk (Bruno Kirby) who adheres to strict radio guidelines and disapproves of Cronauer’s jokes. Even worse is Major Philip Dickerson (J.T Walsh) who for lack of a better description has a major stick up his ass when it comes to discipline.
Initially Cronauer is happy to defy them simply by playing James Brown music and making off-colour jokes about Richard Nixon, but as the war escalates so does tension on the airwaves. The news played over army airwaves is strictly censored, and when terrorists bomb a popular local café Cronauer frequents, he defies direct orders and announces it to the troops. Dickerson jumps at the occasion and replaces Cronauer with Hauk showing a prime example of how not to be funny. Hauk’s idea of comedy is so bad the radio crew receives hundreds of letters from angry soldiers saying he sucks the sweat off a dead man’s balls. Ouch.
Director Barry Levinson and writer Mitch Markowitz also take time to show the war from the Vietnamese’ point of view. Cronauer tries to befriend a local girl (Chintara Sukapatan), but first he has to go through her brother Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran). Visiting their village during his free time, he sees they do not have much to live with and that the war is taking away even more every day. The American soldiers are supposedly there to help them, but even when Tuan goes out with Cronauer for drinks some of them get rowdy and say they don’t want “gooks” drinking with them.
Balancing comedy and heavy drama is a tricky act, but overall both Williams and Levinson manage to pull it off. An especially effective dramatic scene is when Cronauer is doing his schtick for the troops in the streets and then sees them drive away knowing many of them will probably die or get severely injured in the jungle despite what the “official” news say.
As for the comedy, I don’t care if you hate Robin Williams I dare you not to laugh at him getting back at Dickerson by telling him he is in more dire need of a blowjob than any white man in history. Yes, that is definitely funny.