With the sad passing of Robin Williams the other day, I thought I would look back at one of his many great films. I chose GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM because this film was his big breakthrough performance — the one that made him a superstar. For his efforts, he took home his second Golden Globe® award (Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical) and he received his first Oscar® nomination (Best Actor in a Leading Role). Robin was an incredible talent who will surely be missed by his millions of fans all over the world.
GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM is very loosely based on the experiences of former radio DJ Adrian Cronauer during his stint in (South) Vietnam in 1965 and 1966. Cronauer was a radio announcer on Armed Forces Radio in Crete when he was sent to Saigon back when the Vietnam War was still referred to as a “police action”. With his enthusiastic broadcasting style including his now iconic sign on address, his choice of playing James Brown and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas rather than the usual unimaginative fare of Perry Como and Mantovani, and his disdain for authority, he butted heads with his superiors on more than one occasion. But the American soldiers who were posted in Vietnam loved Cronauer and he quickly became the Voice of Saigon.
The real Adrian Cronauer has said on many occasions that if he had acted in real life as he was portrayed in the film, he still would be serving time in military prison. Yes, GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM is not much more than a vehicle to showcase Williams’ brand of rapid fire stand up humour, so ignore the back story and enjoy the show. His comparison of Mister Ed (a fictional talking horse from 1960s television) to then former US vice president (and future president) Richard Nixon is pure genius. Who else except Williams would have noticed that the two voices actually sound alike? (It’s ironic that the real Cronauer is a big supporter of the Republican Party and probably voted for Nixon.) Throughout the course of the film, Williams also channels other voices from popular culture of the day including Elvis, Gomer Pyle, Elmer Fudd, Rod Serling, Lawrence Welk and Walter Cronkite. Even Ethel Merman makes an “appearance”. For those of us who grew up watching with these people on TV, it’s like a blast from the past.
Of course, some of Williams’ material would never make it onto any radio station back in the 60s let alone a government-run station. His character, Mr. Leo, a flowery fashion consultant for the army, thinks that the soldiers’ camouflage uniforms are all wrong. As Mr. Leo says, “You know, you go in the jungle, make a statement. If you’re going to fight, clash.” Funny, most definitely, but that’s because the film was made in 1987 when it was acceptable to make gay jokes like that. The same can be said about Williams’ other character, Roosevelt E. Roosevelt, a soldier stationed in Vietnam who provides Cronauer with regular weather updates. (“Fool, it’s hot! I told you again!”) One can argue that Roosevelt is an updated parody of Jack Benny’s servant, Rochester, but I doubt that people back in 1965 would have made the connection let alone appreciated it.
Don’t expect to garner any great insights about the American presence in Vietnam in the 60s from watching this film. This is no APOCALYPSE NOW or THE DEER HUNTER. The few scenes that show the Viet Cong bombing American hangouts in Saigon or the Americans bombing the Vietnamese countryside offer nothing more than a Reader’s Digest version of the events that took place there. But this film is a pleasure to watch if only to see a master entertainer at work.
Thanks, Robin, for giving us so much happiness. If there is a heaven, I hope you’re there making G-d and the angels laugh.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 37:05.)