Back in nineteen eighty eight, Robin Williams was not well known for his work on the big screen. He had a successful career in stand up and on television in the hit comedy Mork & Mindy, but his film roles were limited to a handful of well received roles and the massive flop that was the Popeye movie. It took the success of Good Morning, Vietnam to finally propel Williams into the major league of comedic movie stars.
The film is set in nineteen sixty five during the early days of the Vietnam conflict. It is not yet classed as a war , more of a police action. Armed services radio is tasked with keeping the troops on the ground entertained and informed (up to a point). Brought in from the relative safety of the island of Crete by the general in charge is the disc jockey Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams). His over the top radio persona which includes voices, skits and jokes is an immediate hit with the troops as it exposes the ultimate idiocy of the situation they are in. Adrian spends his free time chasing girls and one in particular catches his eye. He is trying to impress her during an English language class and ends up befriending her brother. When Adrian is nearly caught in a terrorist attack in a bar he begins to realise that the ‘war’ is not in some distant field but is in fact on his very doorstep.
The character of Cronauer seems to be custom made for the talents of Robin Williams. It came as something of a surprise to discover that the character was based on a real person. He came up with the story based on his experiences during the conflict and pitched his idea, first as a television series and then as a movie. When Williams signed on to the movie the role was rewritten to more easily fit in with his style of delivery and his mannerisms. It is an excellent piece of writing that gives Williams a solid base for the portrayal. A lot of the dialogue feels natural and spontaneous. It is clearly hilariously funny. Looking back it is no surprise that it resulted in a the world wide adulation Williams received.
The film consists of two distinct parts to it. The first half, where the characters are presented and developed, is more comedic and light. Williams shines in the main role and is clearly having a good time. Almost at the half way point the film adopts a more serious tone. Due to an incident we see the flip side of the conflict. This takes us out of the comedy and to a place that is much closer to the reality of the situation. The later stages of the film give Williams a chance to bring his dramatic acting skills to the fore. He handles the change surprisingly well and the serious acting gives an indication of his range and what audiences could expect from future dramatic roles. This mood change is conveyed superbly during a musical montage. While Louis Armstrong is singing What a wonderful world the images showed darken the tone of the film considerably. It is intended solely to get a point across which it certainly achieves.
What the film demonstrates is that people, no matter where they come from or look like, are fundamentally the same. Everyone basically wishes to belong. Te locals see the U.S. troops coming in as an opportunity. They are shown trying to learn English in a bid to have the opportunity to interact with the soldiers. Adrian is no different. He craves friendship through his colleagues and the locals that he meets. Although he pursues a girl, he ends up having a closer relationship with her brother. In the main, the people spurn conflict both in the grand scale of the war and in interpersonal relationships. Passing up interacting is seen as a bad thing. Two personalities, Lieutenant Hauk (Bruno Kirby) and the Sergeant Major Dikerson (JT Walsh), are shown to be the most twisted and unhappy.
Given Williams larger than life performance it is a challenge for any other actor to really shine in their role. One who manages this is Forest Whitaker as private Garlick. Sensibly playing the role with less verve provides the ideal balance to the Cronauer personality. It is a touching and well thought out performance from an actor who was only gaining a reputation at the time.
Overall an enjoyable comedic film that then moves into more intensively dramatic areas. Recommended.
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