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"Good Morning, Vietnam" review: Robin Williams rocks in Vietnam War dramedy

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Good Morning, Vietnam

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“Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987)

Directed by Barry Levinson

Written by Mitch Markowitz

Starring: Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby, J.T. Walsh, Chintara Sukapatana, Robert Wuhl

Adrian Cronauer: Goooooooood morning Vietnam! It's 0600 hours. What does the "O" stand for? O my God, it's early! Speaking of early, let's hear it for that Marty Lee Drywitz. Silky smooth sounds, making me sound like Peggy Lee...

Director Barry Levinson’s “Good Morning, Vietnam” is a Hollywood rarity; it’s a wonderfully humorous movie set in the early years of American military operations in South Vietnam. As Roger Ebert commented in his contemporary review, the movie “works as straight comedy and as a Vietnam-era ‘MASH.’”

As written by Mitch Markowitz, “Good Morning, Vietnam” is the fictionalized story of Airman Second Class Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams), an Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) disc jockey transferred by the military from Heraklion, Crete, to Saigon, South Vietnam. Irreverent and unorthodox in every way, Cronauer meets Private First Class Edward Montesquieu Garlick (Forest Whitaker) at a U.S. air base.

The laid-back Garlick likes the new DJ, but he worries that Cronauer will not be received with open arms by his AFRS superiors in Saigon.

Brig. Gen. Taylor (Noble Willingham), the AFRS commander in Saigon, is easy-going enough, but Cronauer’s immediate superiors (Sergeant Major Phillip Dickerson and Second Lieut. Steven Hauk) are Regular Army martinets who expect him to follow military regulations and preferred programming.

While Lieut. Hauck (Bruno Kirby) is merely a “chickens—t” officer who sticks to the Army’s strict rules about music programming and appropriate humor, Dickerson (J.T. Walsh) is a quietly menacing career soldier who dislikes Cronauer and his unorthodox ways at first sight.

Dickerson: This is not military issue, airman. What sort of uniform is that?

Adrian Cronauer: Cretan camouflage, sir. If you want to blend in with a bunch of drunken Greeks there's nothing better.

Dickerson: That is humor. I recognize that. I also recognize your brand of soldier.

The Army expects Cronauer to go with the program and play safe, conventional easy listening music by Lawrence Welk, Perry Como, Ray Coniff, and Mantovani.

Cronauer, however, has other plans. He knows that most of the growing American presence in South Vietnam consists of young soldiers in their late teens and early 20s. As he tells his superiors, Vietnam is a “rock ‘n’ roll war.” If the Army wants to boost their morale and ease their homesickness, why not give the kids music they can relate to?

Dickerson and Hauck disagree vehemently, but Cronauer ignores them and starts playing songs by James Brown, the Beach Boys, and The Silhouettes, just to name a few.

Cronauer also crosses his by-the-book superiors with his attempts to get around the Army’s strict censorship rules and staid regulations about radio humor.

Adrian Cronauer: Hey, we're back. That last few seconds of silence was Marcel Marceau's newest hit single, "Walkin' In The Wind." And now, here are the headlines. Here they come at you right now. Pope actually found to be Jewish. Liberace is Anastasia, and Ethel Merman jams Russian radar. The East Germans, today, claimed that the Berlin Wall was a fraternity prank. Also the Pope decided today to release Vatican-related bath products. An incredible thing, yes, it's the new Pope-on-a-Rope. That's right. Pope-on-a-Rope. Wash with it, go straight to heaven. Thank you. Meanwhile, Ethel Merman managed to jam Russian radar, she was quoted as singing [loud and off-key] "Oh, IIII've got a feeeeeliiiing... that loooove is here to staaaaay!". When asked for a statement, the Russians simply replied [with a Russian accent], "What the hell was that?"

My Take

“Good Morning, Vietnam” is more than a collection of comedic improvisations by Robin Williams or a post-“Platoon” retooling of Robert Altman’s anti-war comedy “M*A*S*H.”

Levinson’s film is also the story of Cronauer’s evolution from the AFRS’ class clown to a more caring, aware human being as a result of the war. Every interaction he has with the people around him (his fellow AFRS staffers, the GIs that make him popular, and the Vietnamese civilians he encounters on a daily basis) changes Cronauer in some way.

Sometimes, especially when he runs up against the Army’s red tape and censorship, Cronauer becomes more cynical and less tolerant of military bureaucracy. At various points in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” Williams’ character is frustrated, then infuriated, by the military’s desire to put a positive spin on the ever-escalating conflict.

For instance, when wire reports arrive at the AFRS station via teletype, the DJs have to have the news vetted by a pair of Army censors (Don and Dan Stanton). More often than not, Censor #1 and Censor #2 strike out any report about combat operations, political unrest in Saigon, and Viet Cong terrorist attacks against the Americans and their local allies:

Censor #1: What do you think you're doing? You know you're forbidden to read anything not checked by this office.

Adrian: What's there to check? I was there.

Censor #1: Airman, you know the rules. If this is a legitimate news story, it must go through proper channels.

Adrian: Listen, Tweedledee, it's an actual event. [referring to the blood on his shirt] What do you think this came from? Shaving? It's the truth. I just want to report the truth. It'll be a nice change of pace.

Dickerson: What's going on here?

Adrian: Sir, will you listen to me?

SGM Dickerson: [reads the story] This is not official news, Airman. As far as I'm concerned, it didn't happen.

Adrian: It did happen.

SGM Dickerson: You shut your mouth!

Adrian: What are you afraid of, Dickerson? People might find out there's a war going on?

Cronauer’s relationships with Vietnamese civilians are also essential elements of his growth as a person.

At first, Adrian is motivated only by his infatuation with Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana), a beautiful but chaste girl he sees on a Saigon street while on his way to the AFRS station. Later, in an attempt to get a date with Trinh, he takes over an English class where her protective brother Tuan (Tung Thahn Tran) is a student.

Tuan is young, smart and streetwise. He knows what Cronauer is up to and at first he resists the American’s efforts to befriend him. Eventually, though, Adrian’s irreverence and willingness to know Vietnam’s people wins Tuan over, at least on a personal basis.

Cronauer wins the hearts and minds of the rest of the class, particularly when he stops teaching them textbook English and gives them lessons on contemporary American slang.

Though “Good Morning, Vietnam” is a showcase for the late Robin Williams’ off-the-wall improvisational humor, the movie’s tone gets progressively darker and even tragic. Trusts will be broken, the Americans’ self-confidence will turn into sour disillusion as the war escalates, and Cronauer will run up against the unmovable force of Army bureaucracy.

Levinson’s major achievement in “Good Morning, Vietnam” is that he lets Williams run on his own during the radio monologues, while surrounding him with a cast of formidable actors who can hold their own with the great comedian.

Supporting cast members Bruno Kirby, Forest Whitaker, Robert Wuhl and J.T. Walsh turn in excellent performances that are funny, dramatic, and believable.

Hauk: Okay, who do we have slated for live entertainment in November?

Phil: Well, we originally wanted Bob Hope, but it turns out he won't come.

Hauk: Why not?

Garlick: He doesn't play police actions, just wars. Bob likes a big room, sir.

[The group laughs]

Hauk: That is not funny!

Abersold: How about if it escalated?

Hauk: How about if what escalated?

Abersold: The Vietnam conflict.

Hauk: The Vietnam conflict. We are not going to escalate a whole war just so we can book a big name comedian!

Good Morning Vietnam: The 25th Anniversary Edition

Buena Vista Home Entertainment, a division of the Walt Disney Company, issued a 1-disc Blu-ray release in 2012 to commemorate “Good Morning, Vietnam’s” silver anniversary.

Considering that “Good Morning, Vietnam” is considered by many critics to be among the top 10 of Robin Williams’ movies, Disney’s Blu-ray team gives serious videophiles an acceptably good but not great high-definition product.

Though the Blu-ray has better audio and video resolution than its DVD forerunner, it still has some problems with digital noise reduction that sometimes mar picture quality and an audio mix that is front-speaker heavy and not as rich or lively as it could be. This is not an issue for most viewers, but devoted fans who want a richer and more immersive viewing experience may want to wait till Disney re-issues “Good Morning, Vietnam” in a Special Commemorative Edition at some later date.

The 2012 Blu-ray's extra features are all right but not impressive, either. They include a standard-issue set of making of featurettes that form a “Production Diary.” The featurettes can be watched as stand-alone extras or can be watched as a single documentary by selecting the “play all” function.

“Good Morning, Vietnam: The 25th Anniversary Edition” comes with the following standard definition extras:

“Production Diary” Featurettes

· How the Movie Came to Be

· Actor Improv

· Music of the Movie

· Origin of the “Good Morning, Vietnam” Sign-On

· Shooting in Thailand

· Overview of the Film a Year Later

Raw Monologues

Original Theatrical Trailer

Original Theatrical Teaser Trailer

Blu-ray Specifications:

  • Format: Multiple Formats, AC-3, Blu-ray, DTS Surround Sound, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Language: English (DTS-HD High Res Audio)
  • Subtitles: French, English, Norwegian
  • Region: Region A/1
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: R (Restricted)
  • Studio: Buena Vista Home Entertainment
  • DVD Release Date: January 17, 2012
  • Run Time: 121 minutes
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