~ Good Morning, Vietnam is the Blind Spot entry for September. Full listing here. ~
"Goooooood Morning, Vietnam! Hey, I know it's not the morning, but that's my trademark, and 'good evening' sounds too depressing."
Barry Levinson directs Robin Williams in one of the greatest Vietnam films of all time. Avoiding tragic jungle warfare and opting to tackle the ‘Hearts and Minds’ issue Levinson shines a light on the tragic locality of the Vietnam war.
Good Morning, Vietnam falls amongst a long line of Vietnam War films haunted by the spectre of fatalism. There’s no easy way to document the tragic futility of the Vietnam War and very few attempt to do so with a light-hearted tone.
Levinson’s approach differs from the gun-heavy Platoon‘s and Apocalypse Now‘s, the introspective Deer Hunter, and hard-hitting docs Hearts and Minds and The Fog of War. Instead, Good Morning, Vietnam offers viewers a comedic drama set inside the Armed Forces Radio Service that casually ventures outside into the horrors of the ubiquitous invasion.
I’ll spare you the historicity of the fateful war for the sake of this review otherwise we would be here all day. Besides, I’m no Dan Snow.
Interesting fact for you, Adrian Cronauer, played by Robin Williams, was a real life radio personality during the Vietnam War. Recognised for his irreverant style and innovative whimsy Williams was the perfect casting choice.
Lt. Hauk: Sir, the man has got an irreverent tendency. He did a very off-color parody of former VP Nixon.
General Taylor: I thought it was hilarious
Transferred from Crete to Saigon Cronauer is thrust into the action. Emerging from his flight in somewhat dressed down uniform and meeting with Edward Garlick, a young and refreshing Forest Whitaker, the two travel back to headquarters so Cronauer can meet his superiors.
Cronauer’s irreverance immediately shines through. Garlick and the other DJs, programmers, and producers find inspiration in Cronauer’s appointment but his antics soon rub his superiors up the wrong way. With blatant disregard for military guidelines, radio etiquette and censorship it’s the bureaucracy, red tape, and genuine spitefulness that brings Cronauer’s tenure to an end.
The sprite bursts of unpredictable whimsy and sharp quips are often limited to Cronauer’s broadcasts. However, on occasion Levinson ventures beyond the base exploring Vietnam through Cronauer’s eyes, engaging with the Vietnamese people, immersing himself in culture and taking over as an English teacher for a local school.
His intentions for the latter are driven by his infatuation with a local Vietnamese girl and in an attempt to speak with her ends up befriending her brother Tuan. Beyond the walls of the radio station Cronauer takes on a wholly different personality where rock and roll is absent and the war seems like a million miles away.
But it is in this lull that the audience is reminded of the brutal locality of the war. While enjoying a “cup of formaldehyde” at Jimmy Wah’s GI bar Tuan drops by and encourages him to meet his sister. Cronauer is served a potent reminder as Wah’s bar goes up in smoke. Desperate to share the truth of the war with the troops and anyone who listens Cronauer bursts through the censor room determined to report the explosion.
When Sergeant Major Dickerson intervenes Cronauer appears to cool off and begins his usual broadcast at 1600 hours. His attempt to share the truth is short lived and after a brief spell of suspension Cronauer soon comes to realise the effect his broadcasts have on the influx of troops deployed across Vietnam.
With the onset of Louis Armstrong’s ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ resonating ironic riffs throughout the land Levinson takes his own personal stab at shining a light on the hidden realities of the Vietnam War. Juxtaposing the nature of the war with a montage of deliberately powerful imagery mirrors Cronauer’s personal afflictions with the treatment of the war by the dictatorial military media.
In this lies the power of Levinson and William’s respected achievements. Levinson affected the largely digested but diluted consensus surrounding the Vietnam War. By 1987 the scars had never healed and Levinson considered it a duty to fill a void that Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket couldn’t fill. With Willams at the helm his lighter comedic approach was secured but it also allowed him the freedom to explore quieter avenues to greater effect.
Stunning the viewer with a sensory onslaught Williams’ often ad libbed anecdotes, impressions, news readings and song introductions ensured that the broadcast scenes never made for a dull moment.
But Levinson’s wholly character driven story filled the gaps between broadcasts with potent reminders and shocking realisations that took the viewer away from the misplaced stereotypes and militant xenophobia ever present in Vietnam war filmography.
Such dialogue rarely rears its ugly head in Good Morning, Vietnam but when it does the full emotional force swells until defused by a comic bar brawl. Giving time to correct misplaced consensus while providing a light hearted touch with Robin Williams’ effortless comic timing Levinson has ensured the Vietnam war isn’t only covered by brutal war imagery or historical documentaries.
Justifiably so Levinson doesn’t have to worry about this Must-see getting lost amongst a sea of Vietnam War filmography as it retains it’s cultural and historical significance with a stunning breakout performance from Robin Williams.
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If that’s not enough to convince you then perhaps this does it for you?
~ Happy Viewing ~
Miyazaki delivers another Ghibli masterpiece in October with Princess Mononoke.