Now here’s a fun title to say out loud, “Good Morning Vietnam!” … Just shout it out loud, it’s great. There have been plenty of war comedies like “Stripes” and “M*A*S*H” but “Good Morning Vietnam” is a little different when compared to those two. You could call it a comedy but you could also categories this as a war drama too. If you’re a fan of Robin Williams than this is film you have to see. It’s easily one of his greatest performances, as he perfectly balancing the line between side-splitting humor and real down-to-earth emotion. Almost like he represents what the film is ultimately about, focusing on the dramatic realism of a war, yet at the same time keeping you entertained, and giving you plenty of laughs along the way.
As you’d expect by the title, the film is set in Saigon during the Vietnam War, and is loosely based on the experiences of the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) radio DJ named Adrian Cronauer, who’s played brilliantly by Robin Williams. In the film, Adrian is called in to be a radio DJ to entertain troops while they head out to battle. He’s completely full of joy, making jokes even when he gets into trouble, and he loves beautiful women. He makes friends with a Vietnamese boy named Tuan, pursues a small relation with his sister, and he teaches a class of elder people. Most of this film is spent with this man simply bringing joy into the lives of others and even bringing new perspectives into the lives of others. However, things take a turn for the worst when the war, destruction and human casualties take shape in the populated cities, and military officials need to keep events under wraps. Now, Adrian wants to do more then just bring people joy, he wants to tell the news as it is, so the people of Vietnam may know the casualties of this war. This leads me to one of my favorite moments, when he convinces his superiors that he’ll do his regular comedy show, only to break down on the air, and inform the masses of the real-life tragedies that are unfolding before his eyes. The way this scene escalates his very tense, and in the moment, as we see Adrian attempt to be funny, but the stress and emotion just eats away at him, and you can just feel the gears moving behind his eyes, all while the officer’s outside are desperately trying to break in and pull the plug.
While I probably wouldn’t call this my absolute favorite Robin Williams movie, it is the one I feel utilized his acting strengths to the fullest. His dual performance between delivering comedy and pathos is flawless, and the way he combines the two emotions in a single scene highlights a real talent for the ages. Another stand out scene is when he’s at the end of his ropes, and during a traffic gam, his friend encourages him to get up and entertain a caravan of troops that are driving by. In this moment, we see him escape into the role of a comedian, yet you all see and feel the humanity behind the goofball who’s just so touched by the experience he’s shared with these brave soldiers. When Robin Williams is behind the microphone, you never get the same joke twice, it’s something new and fresh every time. Director Barry Levinson wanted him to sound like a regular radio DJ with no scripted lines, so most of what he says while on air were all improvised, which further demonstrates his talents. I could honestly watch him do this all day, as he’s just such a joy. It’s no surprise that Robin Williams got an Oscar nomination for his performance, although it’s also kid of tragic he didn’t win this one, as I felt he really deserved it in this film.
Now aside from Robin Williams inspiring performance, this film really knows how to segue between both its goofy and dramatic tones, and never once feels jarring. I think the main reason these two elements work so well in this film is because “Good Morning Vietnam” is one of those rare movies that values the art … of silence. Whenever either a very comedic or emotional scene is playing out, it does so in almost complete silence and musical ques are used sparingly. So often in films of this sort, the music gets either too whimsically inspired or too dramatic, but by keeping things quiet, it gives certain events an atmosphere of inevitability and genuineness. There’re also some clever moments that deliberately contrast the town, and this is when I feel the movie really shines. This brings me to a scene that is personally one of my favorites from any war movie, and it’s when Adrian plays Louis Armstrong’s song “What a Wonderful world” on the radio, while inter-cut with a montage of the brutally, horrific events happening throughout Vietnam. I’ll never forget seeing this movie for the first time as a young teenager and just feeling very moved by this moment, as if a talented filmmaker wanted to craft something artistic, while also delivering something very profound in the process.
Another strength to this film is that it forgoes tired clichés, and focuses on real conflicts brought about through human nature. For example, from the start of the film, Adrian is at odds with two superior officers, and while they can be viewed as jerks, their also not one-dimensional bully stereotypes either. They do have moral codes, they’re both dignified with their principles, but their viewpoints just don’t click with our hero, or his friends who see him as an asset. This makes for a more engaging back and forth between the players, and how some will make good points while others will stand by a moral code. On a side note, this movie introduced me to Forest Whitaker, who’s a young talent in this film and plays a soldier who becomes Adrian's closest friend. His performance is very compelling, and it really says something about his talents, to be a young new actor working alongside someone like Robin Williams, and still leaving an impression. It’s hard to explain, but there’s just something about his passion and drive that makes him infectiously lovable.
The relation with the two Vietnamese siblings is also effective, and gives the film extra layers of depth. Most Vietnam center movies prior to this one mostly highlighted the Vietnamese as the enemy, but this film took us into their world and explored their humanity. It also show-cases how narrow cited many officers were, as Adrian’s friendship with the siblings puts his whole character in question. One of the films game-changing moments is when Adrian and his friend are stranded behind enemy lines, leaving his Vietnamese friend as his only hope for escape. This is the bursting of the bubble, when his superiors learn how deep his friendship is with select Vietnamese people, and further dramatic secrets are revealed. The movie closes on a powerful note, where individual characters move on, and while nothing major occurs in the grand scheme of the war, individual lives are changed, and things close on a bitter sweet note.
Overall, it’s one of those rare films that brings you a lot of joy and laughs, while also giving you something really strong and down to earth. In fact, I’d right this off as one of my personal favorite War movies. There’s comedy present in the film, but the movie isn’t a satire the same way “Stripes” was a satire. It’s just a very simple, colorful story that takes place within one of our darkest periods, and further highlights how this one person bringing joy and laughter could be just as impact-full as the troops fighting the battles. It’s one of those movies that I feel doesn’t require a review, as you can just sit down, watch it, and the experience will tell you everything. If you’re a fan of Robin Williams, then this film is almost mandatory to check out, and see this great talent in one of his best roles.
I give “Good Morning Vietnam” 4 ½ stars out of five.