Williams’ filmic comedy stands test of time

My father knows that I prefer watching movies made in this millennium, which is why he periodically insists I watch an older film with him. When we heard Robin Williams had died,he recommended the Williams classic, “Good Morning Vietnam.” I put it in my Netflix queue and finally got around to seeing it last week.

The film stars Robin Williams as Adrian Cronauer (a fictional version of the real U.S. Army radio host) and is set in Saigon in 1965. Immensely popular among American Soldiers, Cronauer runs into trouble when his crazy, satirical monologues and insistence on reading real news stories is found to be counter to United States Army Radio policy. Although primarily a comedy, “Good Morning Vietnam” also deals with dramatic themes including loyalty, betrayal, concealment and the human toll of prolonged military occupation.

Williams is aided by a strong supporting cast, including a notable performance from second-man Forest Whittaker. Whittaker plays Edward Garlick, and he effortlessly sinks into the loping gate and gentle good humor of a perhaps still boyishly-innocent American soldier. Helpful and kind, Garlick acts as Cronauer’s companion and guide throughout the film and as Cronauer encounters more of the war, it is Garlick who provides context and keeps his friend moving. Garlick roots for Cronauer the way the audience is meant to, and this leaves not only Cronauer, but also the audience, with a fondness for Whittaker’s Garlick that adds a definite pleasure to the viewing experience. Whittaker’s performance rings true and is in lockstep with the already noticeably genuine feel of the film.

As someone who visited Vietnam in 2008, the country filmed was instantly recognizable as a modern Vietnamese setting. Some of the props were undoubtedly anachronistic, but the overall feel of the setting was nothing short of fully accurate. The expensive set design helped immerse the viewer fully into the film. A $13 million budget spent liberally on panoramic views of military personnel and equipment created so realistic a film-going experience that I briefly thought I was watching actual footage from the Vietnam War. These sets are featured heavily during the numerous montages throughout the film, and “Good Morning Vietnam” shines when it mashes together audio of Cronauer’s disc jockeying and video of soldiers listening. These montages, while entertaining thanks primarily to Williams’ comedic talents, also provide a sense of context and a reminder that war is war, no matter how good the radio. I found myself looking forward to hearing Williams on the radio again, and was tempted to fast-forward through the somewhat-forced secondary plots. I say Williams because although technically his character, Cronauer, is doing the talking, the improvised monologues are 100 percent vintage Williams stand-up. This movie is truly funny, and I recognized much of the humor from my father’s own stories of army antics in Vietnam.

One particular sequence comes to mind in that, until it begins, the radio montages had been lighthearted affairs: Cronauer is being funny, and soldiers are laughing. When Cronauer is replaced by Lt. Steven Hauk, with his mistimed jokes and strange taste in music, his malaise is mirrored by a noticeable shift in the tone of the montage. Gone are the laughing soldiers, and in their place a similar but darker series of images marches past. Even more unsettling, these new and violent scenes of executions and bombings play out against the audio backdrop of Hauk’s sickeningly sweet polka music.

This dichotomy is parallel to Williams’ own portrayal of Cronauer, which ricochets wildly between an introverted, contemplative character, and a manically-humorous radio personality. I delighted in seeing those two halves finally come together in a scene that matches excellent storytelling with a painfully genuine performance by Williams, in which Cronauer grudgingly entertains three jeeps full of soldiers headed to the front lines. Everyone in the scene knows their situation is deadly serious, but Cronauer is able to convince his audience, and eventually himself, that there is still room for a funny man.

“Vietnam” does suffer from clunky dialogue at some points, and it unfortunately grows a bit preachy towards the end, as its various subplots each attempt to develop into full-blown war dramas. For example, although I am glad the romance was never fully explored, its lack of discernible meaning leaves me wondering why it was ever included in the first place. Some of the dialogue towards the end of the film was stating the message that the director was trying to get across outright instead of showing. That resulted in the moral lessons of the film being shoved down the audience’s throat a bit. It seems that in the hands of a lesser actor, “Vietnam” might have fallen flat. Thankfully, the part of Cronauer could only have been written for Williams. His brand of comedy is often used to mask darker issues, and it is the true genius of the film that the terrible situations and strong characters around Williams force him, as well as his character, to find their genuine emotionality. By the end of his arc, Cronauer uses his humor not to mask himself but to provide emotional help for others, which I happily recognize whenever I see footage of Williams’ legendary USO shows. Cronauer’s catharsis is visible, but he never fully regains his sidesplitting hilarity again. The second and third acts are not nearly as humorous as the first and I almost felt duped: I had signed up for a comedy, but I was getting a character drama.  The greatest moments in “Vietnam” come when Williams is not being funny. His heartfelt shout out to the G.I’s he entertained just a scene previous, and the subsequent montage set to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” are truly beautiful scenes, and if they were all “Good Morning Vietnam” had to offer, it would still be worth watching.

“Good Morning Vietnam” strives to make us laugh while presenting a convincing anti-war argument, and although it overreaches in some places, thanks to Williams’ near perfect performance, it succeeds.

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