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Good Morning, Vietnam

Good Morning, Vietnam, 1987

In 1965, Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) arrives in Vietnam as the new DJ for the Army's radio station. His irreverent humor is a big hit with the troops, but rubs his direct supervisors the wrong way. But as he spends more time in Vietnam, getting to know both the soldiers and the local people, the the reality of the war begins to hit home.

This is one of those Robin Williams comedies where most of the approach is wind him up and let him go. For the most part, it works. Not only because Williams is clearly at home in his mile-a-minute routines, but the manic approach creates a kind of natural tension, where the stream of jokes and impressions feels like something desperate to stave off the reality of a very grim situation.

The balance between drama and comedy here is an interesting one. How do you mix Walter Cronkite impersonations with crimes against humanity? The subplot about Adrian's friendship with a young man in his English class (he volunteers to teach so that he can get closer to a young woman he likes) is a moving one. The drama subplot actually works surprisingly well. As the film progresses, we come to see Adrian's humor as a way of both bonding with others and a way of pushing away the darkness for a few moments.

One area where the film struggles a bit is in trying to be even handed in terms of the actions of the US Army, the South Vietnamese, and the Viet Kong. While the film's portrayal of its Vietnamese citizens is mostly positive, I thought that it was interesting that the film couldn't being itself to be concrete in terms of what was done to Vietnamese civilians. We are shown (graphically) the results of a Viet Kong attack on American soldiers, but the worst thing that any of the American military characters is guilty of is throwing around racial slurs. The men surrounding Adrian (with the exception of the two villainous supervisors who want to get rid of him) are all very affable. While their performances are really fun (especially Forest Whitaker as a shy solder who is taken with Adrian's personality), this is where the balance between comedy and drama seems to break down a bit.

I was very relieved that the plot about Adrian chasing after a young Vietnamese woman (Chintara Sukapatana) was mostly an inroads to his interactions with the other local people. With her in her early 20s and him in his mid/late 30s, the age gap skews a little icky, especially as he takes a job as her teacher so that he has an excuse to find out her name, address, and phone number. I felt that ultimately the film landed on the right side of things, moving away from his initial stalker-like behaviors.

Woven throughout this film is the question of the function of entertainment and news. Everything Adrian says on the radio must first be approved by a set of censors (played by a wonderfully humorless set of twins). Repeatedly we see that negative or demoralizing news is hidden from the troops, leaving them with bland "news" that amounts to toothless gossip. As Adrian's understanding of the reality of the war grows, he begins to become uncomfortable with simply presenting a chipper, irreverent show. Keeping the troops in good spirits is important, but so is telling the truth. The film never ultimately answers the question of what constitutes the correct balance, but watching it explore the question is interesting.

Solid flick. Reminded me that I miss Robin Williams.