Saturday, August 24, 2013

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

             “Good Morning, Vietnam” was released in 1987 and was a huge hit.  It was the fourth highest grossing film that year.  The film had its genesis from Adrian Cronauer shopping a script for a TV series or made for TV movie.  He was unsuccessful until Robin Williams got wind of the story and decided he wanted to play a manic disc jockey in Vietnam.  Barry Levinson directed from a script by Mitch Markowitz.  Very little of Cronauer’s script was used.  The movie was shot in Bangkok, Thailand.   Williams was nominated for Best Actor and won the Golden Globe for his role.  The film is #100 on AFI’s list of best comedies. 

                SPOILER ALERT:  The following will cover the plot because the only thing anybody cares about is Williams' jokes.  The movie is set in 1965 Saigon.  Adrian Cronauer (Williams) arrives from Crete to join the Armed Forces Service Radio.  Gen. Taylor (Noble Willingham) has brought him in to bring some humor to the radio broadcasts.  Sure enough, as soon as he gets on the air he becomes Robin Williams.  A montage treats us to ad-libs which have an anti-authority bent.  He also has the nerve to play rock n’ roll!  Lucky for the sound track.  Cronauer’s superiors are not amused with his schtick or his choices in music.  The station head, Sgt. Dickerson (J.T. Walsh), is your typical malevolent lifer who detests Cronauer’s iconoclasm.  His immediate superior Lt. Hauk (Bruno Kirby) doesn’t get his humor or his music.  He’s a stick in the mud.

                Cronauer falls in lust with a Vietnamese girl named Trinh.  He stalks her to her English class and then bribes the teacher to let him take over.  He proceeds to teach the Vietnamese American slang.  They love him because he is so cool.  Just like kids love the teachers who throw course guidelines in the trash and teach just the fun stuff.  Unfortunately, Trinh is a tough sell and her brother Tuan is protective of her.  Cronauer and Tuan develop a friendship and Tuan saves Cronauer’s life by getting him out of a bar before it is blown up.  What had been a comedy is now a war comedy.  When the shaken DJ returns to the station, he wants to discuss the act of terrorism on the air but Dickerson cuts him off and Taylor is forced to suspend him.  Hauk takes over with his very lame humor and polka music (which the screenwriter apparently believed was the opposite of rock n’ roll).
                Cronauer visits Trinh’s village for some local color.  She still does not want to go to bed with her crazy American teacher.  Cronauer decides he is going to quit the business, but after meeting some soldiers in a convoy and doing his Robin Williams act (“where are you from?”), he decides he can’t let them down by depriving them of his awesomeness.  A heavy-handed montage reminds us there is a war going on.  Taylor reinstates Cronauer after numerous complaints about Hauk.  Dickerson decides to go over the general’s head by sending Cronauer off to the combat zone to get him killed.  Mission almost accomplished except that Tuan rescues him in a ridiculous turn of events.  Cronauer finally finds out that Tuan is a Viet Cong operative and was involved in the bombing of the bar.

                Cronauer’s friendship with Tuan ends his radio stint.  Taylor gives him an honorable discharge.  Cronauer confronts Tuan and accuses him of using the American.  Tuan makes a good case for America being the enemy of his people.  On the way to the airport, Cronauer stops to teach his English class how to play baseball.  They all pass this final and are certified bilingual.  He has a tearful good bye with Trinh who wishes things had been different – like if he had not been a creepy foreign stalker.  He says a mirthful good bye to the audience by leaving behind a tape with some more of his hilarity.

                   GMV is an interesting hybrid.  It starts as a standard service comedy then adds in indigenous home front coverage and includes some guerrilla warfare references.  Oh, and there’s the romance as well.  Levinson juggles these pretty well.  The movie shifts gears consistently.  The local color scenes do a fine job depicting Vietnamese culture.  We can be thankful Cronauer/Williams was only there for a few months or that ancient culture would have been forever tainted.  As it is his virus is going to be spread by his English students.  The Tuan character is a nice touch.  You seldom see the Viet Cong cast in a good light.  By 1987, American audiences were ready for a more sympathetic portrayal of the enemy.  It was time to realize it was their country, not ours.  The romance is refreshingly outside the box.  This is one movie where I rooted against the main character getting the girl.  Sorry.

                Levinson puts some effort into getting the war sights right.  For a comedy, it is surprisingly realistic when it shows the soldier’s lives.  Filming in Bangkok proves his seriousness about getting the little details right.  He also brings home the nature of the war through scenes like the bar bombing.  That scene hits the audience hard and is important in balancing the manic “on the air” scenes. It’s realistically violent in its depiction of a terrorist bombing and reminds the audience and Cronauer that there is a war going on and it’s a messy one.  Unfortunately, the other interference of the war through the scene where Cronauer and his chaperone/mentee Pvt. Garlick (Forrest Whitaker) get lost in the jungle is just plain ridiculous.  Sadly, this was also a major plot miscue.  Cronauer was sidetracked from interviewing some front line troops.  This would have been an excellent opportunity to get their perspective.  Instead, Levinson opts for the comedy club banter of the troop convoy scene.  Bad choice!

                The movie avoids clich├ęs for the most part.  The unfulfilled romance.  The failure of the main character to complete his mission.  Empathy for the enemy.  However, it can not avoid the old trope of the clueless brass.  The Dickerson character has been seen numerous times.  Kudos for portraying Gen. Taylor as hip.  He ain’t Patton.  It’s difficult to say if this is an accurate depiction.

                Speaking of accuracy, the movie certainly has flaws as a biopic.  The movie must have been a bittersweet experience for the real Cronauer.  First, they basically threw his script into the trash can.  Second, they turned him into Robin Williams moonlighting as a Vietnam War disc jockey.  Cronauer was nowhere near as funny or anti-authority.  He also did not get into trouble and in fact left at the end of his tour.  On the plus side, I assume he made a lot of money from the movie.  I hope it was worth it for spending the rest of his life with people thinking he must be hilarious and the life of every party.

                GMV is highly acclaimed and highly overrated.  It totally relies for its fame on Williams’ improvs on the air.  This makes Williams’ Oscar nod a bit perplexing since he was essentially playing himself.  The rest of the movie, while being admirably sincere, does not warrant the praise it got.  It is curiously tame in its criticism of the war.  Cronauer is anti-army, anti-censorship, anti-authority and anti-polka, but not really anti-war.  What is depressing is 1987 saw three significant Vietnam War movies.  GMV made $124 million, Full Metal Jacket made $46 million, and Hamburger Hill made $13 million.  Americans preferred a movie about a standup comedian dropped into the war.  Gag.

This picture alone can determine whether you will like the movie.
How do you feel when you see this?
                Cracker?  No.

 grade =  C


  1. Good point about GMV's success compared to Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill. I was young enough to be affected by the scene where the bar is bombed because I had not really seen much terrorism in movies at the time. I also like that you describe Cranuer's pursuit of Trinh as stalking, which it was, although I admit that I did not really recognize that at the time. Much as I liked it at the time,I am not surprised that it is not a cracker.

  2. I think the timing was right for it. The wave of serious and high quality Vietnam films had come through and the public was ready for a comedy. Williams was on a role and people loved the pairing of his manic comedy with a drama that people could enjoy without sweating. I do not think it holds up well. It relied on the timing.

  3. I alwas meant to watch this but I thought it would be better than that. I prefer Willaims in serious roles, I just don't think he is all that funny, so I'm not sure at all I would like this. Sounds like a really mixed bag.

  4. We agree on Williams. I just don't get his humor. I prefer comedians that craft their jokes, not the ones that drunkenly (or cocainely) babble. Ironically, the funniest parts of the movie are when Williams is doing improv on the radio and there is a small percentage of the movie dedicated to that. I guess they wanted to up the seriousness factor.

  5. Seven years later...

    What makes GMV absolutely brilliant is that Robin Williams was able to do hysterical improv COMPLETELY IN PERIOD.

    The movie is essentially late summer, early fall 1965 thrown into a blender and Williams works it.

    (speaking as someone for whom it is currently October 1965...)


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.