by Brian Hadsell
Robin Williams’ death took the whole world by surprise. That affable clown and sometimes father-figure of our youth was now dead. No, not just dead – hanged. It’s as if his finals words were a silent curse: “But Doctor, I am Pagliacci!”
The immediate sting of Williams’ loss has begun to fade in the nearly three weeks since his death, and we can begin to look back on the prodigious body of work that he left us with a measure of objective clarity. It is with this goal in mind that I watched 1987’s Good Morning Vietnam, produced at the cusp of his stardom, in which he plays irreverent D.J. Adrian Cronauer, assigned to a military radio station in 1965 Saigon. As Cronauer clashes with his superiors over everything from the military’s suppression of news-worthy information to his crass brand of comedy, he befriends a young Vietnamese student named Tuan and romantically pursues the boy’s sister Trinh.
The film basically plays out as what would have happened if Robin Williams was cast as Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest instead of Jack Nicholson. Cronauer’s irreverent, counter-establishment comedy, although popular among the grunt-level soldiers, is both resented and misunderstood by his superiors. The station’s manager, Lieutenant Steven Hauk (Bruno Kirby), prefers a more family-friendly brand of humor to Cronauer’s swearing and flippant impersonations, and would prefer “a good polka” to “wild stuff” like James Brown, the Beach Boys and Martha & the Vandellas. Seargent Major Dickerson (J.T. Walsh) is the film’s answer to Cuckoo’s Nest’s Nurse Ratchet. Although rightly concerned about Cronauer’s insubordination and refusal to follow orders, he grows increasingly unstable in the face of the escalating conflict and Cronauer’s increasingly popular antics. He initially attempted to keep him in line with threats and intimidation, which quickly escalated to replacing him with Lieutenant Hauk and, when that fails, purposefully sending him into Vietcong territory so that the enemy can take care of him once and for all.
Although the film features an admirable cast – including the often under-used Robert Wuhl, an up-and-coming Forest Whitaker and new-comer Tung Tran – it is Williams’ performance upon which the entire weight of the film rests. Like the earliest episodes of Seinfeld, the film is seemingly based almost entirely around William’s standup. Although he is occasionally allowed to riff off of other cast members or interact with crowds of soldiers, he spends the vast majority of his time isolated in a sound booth, manically jumping from one persona to another, making topical, off-the-cuff remarks about Vietnam and whatever public-interest stories the army censors will allow him to talk about. Even Cronauer’s truly dramatic moments – arguing against military censorship, defiantly reporting unapproved news, confronting Tuan when he discovers that he is really a Vietcong terrorist – are downplayed against the comedy, creating an experience that is essentially an hour of standup intercut with a half hour of Full Metal Jacket.
Although the film is directed by frequent Williams-collaborator Barry Levinson (who also directed Diner, Rain Man and Sleepers) and written by Mitch Markowitz (who wrote for M*A*S*H and Monk), this is far from either’s best work. The fact that it was produced early in both men’s careers is actually very obvious when watching it. With the exception of brilliantly juxtaposing “What a Wonderful World” with a scene of Americans destroying Vietnamese villages, Levinson is seemingly content with framing Williams in the shot and letting him do whatever he wants. Markowitz’s script is basically a substandard Vietnam War drama that lucked into Robin Williams as a centerpiece. His characters are cartoonish, the romantic subplot between Cronauer and Trinh is unengaging and the climax – in which Cronauer confronts Tuan about being a Vietcong – is supremely anti-climactic (Tuan runs away, monologs about how Americans are the enemy, then is never heard from again).
Good Morning Vietnam is a good, though not great, film that, while funny, is never hilarious. Like a blueprint for his later career, it features the primary elements of what makes a “Robin Williams movie” – a manic cast of different personas (ala Mrs. Doubtfire), counter-establishment protagonists (ala The Dead Poet’s Society) and a compelling flirtation with drama (ala Good Will Hunting). Its central message of “why can’t we just get along” is earnest, and an interesting counterpoint of the go-to Vietnam takeaway of “war is Hell,” even if it ends up being schmaltzier than it probably was intended to be. It succeeds as a vehicle that shows off the comedic range of its leading man, which is strong enough to make up for its shortcomings. Overall, I would give the film a very solid 7/10.