K&M Retro Review: “Good Morning Vietnam”

 

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It has been a little over a year since the passing of Robin Williams yet he is still remembered through his incredibly diverse body of work. He was a comedian with his own special brand of humor. It was humor that I couldn’t always connect with. But over the years Williams proved himself to be more than a shallow, one dimensional actor.

While he had caught attention with some earlier performances, “Good Morning Vietnam” gave Williams his big break. In each of his previous films Williams was kept on a leash. This was the first movie to allow his nutty, hyperactive comedy to run wild. Audiences and critics loved it. The movie was a huge box office success and Williams would earn an Academy Award nomination.

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But “Good Morning Vietnam” offered Williams a chance to do more than just give frenzied comedy routines. The story features several dramatic turns which Williams deftly handles with an eye-opening proficiency. For me these dramatic moments are what sets the film apart and these scenes are what make Williams’ performance so special.

Williams plays Airman Adrian Cronauer, a DJ for the Armed Forces Radio. It’s 1965 and he has been reassigned to Saigon where the Vietnam conflict is growing in intensity. The broadcasts have mainly consisted of a tame pre-selected playlist and sanitized and censored news meant to control the information flow to the troops. But Adrian is a bit…different. His irreverent on-air humor and constant rule-breaking sparks the ire of his superiors but is hugely popular with the troops and his fellow DJs.

Writer Mitch Markowitz’s story features several on-air monologues. He and director Barry Levinson hands them over to Williams and lets him go. It has been said that much of the manic comedy we get was improvised by Williams. Lightning fast quips, heavy sarcasm, and a number of impersonations including Walter Cronkite, Richard Nixon, and Elvis Presley. It’s truly impressive even if I didn’t find a lot of it funny. But even if it isn’t my type of humor, it’s easy to appreciate what Williams is doing.

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While this is essentially a comedy, one of my favorite things about it is how well it represents the locations, atmosphere, and complexities of Vietnam in 1965. The film was shot in Bangkok, Thailand and utilizes numerous parts of the city. Much of this is realized through relationships Adrain forms namely with a beautiful young local (Chintara Sukapatana) and her protective brother (Tung Thanh Tran). Through them Adrian is introduced to a number of the harsh social and political realities

Forest Whitacker, Robert Wuhl, Bruno Kirby, and Noble Willingham round out a fine supporting cast but Williams is the movie’s heart and soul. This was the film that launched his career to new heights and many people were introduced to his impressive diversity as an actor. I still don’t think the manic humor is nearly as funny as it is admirable, but when Williams is allowed to stretch out dramatically he gives us some of film’s best scenes. Those are the moments when “Good Morning Vietnam” stands out.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars