Robin Williams is a comic genius at work in Good Morning, Vietnam, which marks the 35th anniversary since its 1987 release.
Not many people can do what Williams was able to do behind a microphone. I mean, they can try but this man was a genius. It’s not an unfair statement to say that Robin Williams is irreplaceable. When you get behind the microphone in stand-up, the audience is your scene partner. The same goes for actors playing stand-up comedians in TV and movies. In Good Morning, Vietnam, Williams is playing a radio DJ and so his audience is not in front of him but listening elsewhere. Filmmaker Barry Levinson spoke about Williams and the film last year when it played the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival. Williams was worried that he wasn’t funny enough but Levinson had to assure him that he was. Make no mistake, Williams was very funny while doing the radio show!
Robin Williams’s performance earned the first of three Oscar nominations for Best Actor. Williams plays Armed Forces Radio Service DJ Adrian Cronauer. M*A*S*H was a popular sitcom at the time so Adrian Cronauer initially pitched a sitcom but nobody was interested. Something about war not being funny. It wasn’t until after he revamped it as a TV movie in which he was able to get the attention of the comedy legend. Very few things in the film happened in real life although Cronauer did have a radio show and teach English. Okay, so he also left a restaurant before it got bombed and fought superiors about reporting on it. But aside from that, Williams makes this role his own and that is one reason why he’s a genius.
Mitch Markowitz’s script surrounds Cronauer with military stereotypes. It’s sad them some of them–Lt. Steven Hauk (Bruno Kirby) and Sgt. Major Phillip Dickerson (J. T. Walsh)–are in strong disagreement with Cronauer. Much like Headmaster Nolan in Dead Poets Society, Hauk and Dickerson are not a fan of Cronauer’s antics. Private Edward Garlick (Forest Whitaker) is one of the few that takes a liking to the DJ. Cronauer has a way of getting through to the audience that Hauk will never have. That’s the thing with comedy–you either have it or you don’t. And again, this is the beauty of Robin Williams.
One of the plotlines in the film sees Cronauer drawing an interest in Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana). Her brother, Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran) , isn’t a fan of this prospective relationship and Cronauer seizes the opportunity and befriends him instead. This friendship later comes back to haunt the DJ and is the main reason why Gen. Taylor (Noble Willingham) can’t help him.
But before the friendship with Tuan huants him, Dickerson and Hauk route Cronauer and Garland through a Viet Cong-controlled highway. Of course, censorship prevents them from hearing the news on the radio. Next thing you now, both Cronauer and Garland hit a mine and then have to hide from the VC patrol. There’s nothing that makes me more disgusted than American soldiers purposely harming their fellow troops. They are classic antagonists but if this happens in real life, they could be dishonorably discharged. The behavior just makes me sick.
Before departing Vietnam for the United States, Cronauer plays a softball game with his students. With the way that Levinson shoots the scene, it could very well have been a home video or a completely improvised baseball game. Everybody looks like they’re having fun out there and yes, even the MPs are in on it! If it weren’t for the recorded message on the radio playing as Cronauer departs for the US, it could have been a nice ending for the film.
War comedies are not an easy feat to make. There’s a fine line when it comes to presentation. They intersperse scenes of the radio booth with that of troops listening in the field. Mind you, it’s 1965 and the Vietnam War hasn’t quite reached the escalation level that would end President Johnson’s presidency. Footage of troops fighting or under attack is few and far between. It’s for the best of the film, of course, but it doesn’t sell the full portrait of the Vietnam War. If you want a film that depicts the war’s full portrait, there are plenty of films out there.
Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost wrote a script for a sequel, Good Morning, Chicago. Unfortunately, things just didn’t work out. It would have seen Robin Williams reprise his role as Cronauer and cover the 1968 Democratic National Convention as a journalist. Man, what a sight that would have been!
Robin Williams’s performance is the main reason why Good Morning, Vietnam remains one of the funniest films of all time.
DIRECTOR: Barry Levinson
SCREENWRITER: Mitch Markowitz
CAST: Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker