Saturday, August 16, 2014

Good Morning, Vietnam Movie Review

To watch Good Morning, Vietnam is to see Robin Williams at his best, at the top of his game. There’s a reason he earned his first Oscar nomination playing Adrian Cronauer, an Armed Forces Radio DJ who takes a transfer from his cushy post in Greece to Saigon during the war – or Conflict as it is referred to in the movie as in the military and political arenas of the 1960s.

Over the opening credits, a baritone voice dully reads off the news, the DJ occasionally stumbling over a word or misspeaking. The banality of this performance sets us up in anticipation of the moment when Cronauer takes to the airwaves in glaring contrast as it becomes essentially the Robin Williams stand-up comedy improv show. There’s a little taste of his antics as his liaison, Edward Garlick (Forest Whitaker, demonstrating his natural screen acting gifts in an early role) drives him from the airport to the Army base. But nothing can really prepare the audience for that moment after Cronauer is roused early in the morning to get on the air. Groggy and almost incoherent, the on-air light switches to green and Williams is often and running with that now-iconic, “Goooood morning, Vietnaaaaaam!” From here he spends the next several minutes of screen time riffing on Elvis and Gomer Pyle, the hot and humid weather, and the fact that wearing camouflage in the jungle doesn’t make a very loud fashion statement.

The story is (very) loosely based on an actual Vietnam radio jockey named Adrian Cronauer. He originally tried to get his story turned into a TV series, and then a TV movie, but apparently Williams came across it and was instrumental in getting it turned into a feature film. Cronauer’s original script treatment was heavily reworked by screenwriter Mitch Markowitz, turning Cronauer’s story into something more dramatic involving forays into civilian Saigon, teaching an English class to win over a local girl, and befriending her brother who turns out to be a North Vietnamese terrorist.

The supporting cast is packed with some excellently memorable actors. In addition to Whitaker there’s Robert Wuhl as another DJ, great character actor Richard Portnow as that early dull voice on the radio, Bruno Kirby as an insecure and totally unfunny Lieutenant directly overseeing the radio programming, and the late great J.T. Walsh as Sgt. Major Dickerson, an officious prick who can’t stand Cronauer’s popularity, reputation, and brand of comedy.

Good Morning, Vietnam is one in a long string of very good and successful movies directed by Barry Levinson through the 80s and 90s. He doesn’t have a very strong signature style and it would be very difficult to identify one of his films from visual cues alone like you could with Scorsese, Kubrick, or Spielberg. But he spent two decades making admirable movies. The success of this one is mainly due to Williams’ presence. The plot machinations are pedestrian, the political implications simplistic, the comeuppance of Dickerson obvious, and the moralizing almost non-existent. There’s no real attempt to take a stand or make a statement about the Vietnam War or the United States’ execution of policy in broad terms as applied to the bigger picture.

It feels like it does, though, because Cronauer is a subversive character not only because his manic comedy is everything the military isn’t, but also because he pushes back against the censorship of the news that he is required to read out over the airwaves. After a local bar and restaurant frequented by Cronauer and other military personnel is bombed by terrorists (bringing the front essentially to the city center which was believed to be far from the official action), Cronauer, still covered in blood from the dead and wounded, refuses to keep quiet about it on the air. Because opinion on the Vietnam War was still very much divided in 1987, Markowitz’s options were probably limited by a studio that didn’t want to alienate half the American audience. First Amendment arguments, free speech, and battles against censorship are something nearly all Americans are willing to line up for.

The film reaches a moral low point, however, when Cronauer risks his own life to save his friend Tuan, who will likely face an American military assassination for being a terrorist. When Cronauer, an American serviceman learns that his friend has been responsible for civilian murders and possibly the deaths of American personnel, his reaction should be to leave him to the wolves. But Markowitz goes for sentimentality from the relationships he’s built with Tuan and his sister.

For a fairly minor fault like that, I’m not writing off the film because it remains a standout show twenty-seven years later for Williams’ demonstration of some wonderful acting. He’d shown us his comedy before and we’d seen his dramatic abilities in The World According to Garp, but the combination here of brilliant ad-libbed comedy with some serious dramatic undertones was a first introduction to the world of what he could do. There’s a great scene where, against his wishes, Garlick loudly introduces him to a convoy of troop transports who call on him to yell his signature opening salvo. It’s this beautiful moment that has Cronauer the fictional character and Williams the actor meeting at a crossroads of realization that the gifts they possess are for the world to enjoy. And in turn they feed off the energy of the audience. Cronauer gets rolling as soon as those cheers and laughter start. We hear the subtle notes in his delivery of jokes and questions to the troops that Cronauer feels sadness and regret for these boys heading off to the jungle. He’s proud to give them some laughs that might help them through the worst times of their lives. Levinson’s direction here is expertly reserved. Rather than go for brute sentimentality, he allows faces and editing to do the work. Here he shows us his own gifts as a filmmaker who understands the power of the visual over the aural in cinema.

One of the film’s other great highlights is his show immediately following the bombing of his friend Jimmy Wah’s bar where he witnessed bodies lying in the street. He expresses frustration and anger to Dickerson, all pain and melancholy before flipping the on-air switch, and then he attempts to launch into his bits. That, as an actor, Williams was able to rein in what came so naturally to him in terms of schtick and antics to the point that the comedy is there, but with severe reservation and pain is remarkable to watch. Who knows what dark demons he was summoning to get to that point, but it’s there, exposed, for us to witness. We are the better for having seen it, for having had the chance to watch genius at work.

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