By May Fahmi
It’s the year 1965 and air force officer Adrian Cronauer has just landed in tropical Saigon, Vietnam. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’, directed by Barry Levinson, follows the story of Cronauer, (played by Robin Williams) who had flown in from the United States on special assignment as a DJ to inject life and laughter into “Radio Saigon; a dreary army-run radio station broadcasting to the thousands of US soldiers stationed in Vietnam. The irreverent Cronauer immediately overhauls the dull and regimented approach of the station, winning over new fans with his comedic broadcasts filled with manic and hilarious one-liners and impressions. He inevitably butts heads with his superiors who are unhappy with his rise in popularity and his carefree manner.
It is while stationed in Saigon that Cronauer meets and befriends young local man Tuan (Tung Than Tranh), who becomes a guide of sorts. Cronauer becomes increasingly fond of Tuan and his sister, Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana), for whom has developed a liking. As his attachment to the locals grows, Cronauer finds himself increasingly disillusioned with the radio station’s censorship of military news. Frustrated with the task of delivering vacuous and white washed news in his radio show, Cronauer begins to subvert the status quo by broadcasting “non-official” news, risking his job and military career and eventually landing himself in hot water. It is his popularity with his listeners, however, that sees him through the turbulent times.
The Vietnamese people seen in the film are largely depicted through the lens of the American protagonist. Whilst there is a somewhat superficial, and almost orientalist element to their portrayal, the film treats its subject matter with due seriousness.
Directed with pace, Levinson deftly manoeuvres between the comedic antics of Cronauer and the growing unease and tension on the streets of Saigon.
One standout moment in the film shows Cronauer entertaining truckloads of American soldiers and it is memorable not just for the laughs it delivers, but for the way in which he conveys a brief but palpable sense of sadness for young men he will likely never see alive again. At the same time, the film tracks Cronauer’s growing rapport with the Vietnamese locals, which becomes just as strong as it is with his fellow American soldiers. This is turned on its head towards the climax of the film when he begins to question who his friends really are, leading to a pivotal moment in which the face of the enemy is humanised. A moment which also leads us, the audience, to question who the enemy really is, and more importantly, who defines it.
While the film is not excessively littered with blood, bombs and gore, there is always the undercurrent of tension. In a brief but hallmark sequence of the film, the silent images of bloodshed, fear, explosions, poverty, protests and growing unrest are played out to the music of ‘What a Wonderful World’. The irony speaks volumes.
Younger generations who may not be familiar with ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ will likely relate to its depiction of a young generation lost in political slogans and propaganda. Indeed the film’s subtle but evident critique of war has the power to resonate today as much as it did in the post-Vietnam war era of the 80s. With the control of information and the white washing, the conflict is so dubious in its intentions that it has much to say to today’s generation, which has seen numerous wars waged under questionable terms. The fleeting images of a reporter and a protestor shown in the film hints at the groundswell of opposition and protests that occurred in the US against this war, which in large part lead to withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam – a first of its kind. The film effectively hints at history without being historical.
The late Robin Williams, in what was to become one of his most remembered roles, delivers an intuitive and raw performance with trademark frenetic pace. Ably supported by Forrest Whittaker and Bruno Kirby, playing the painfully unfunny antagonist Lt Steven Hawk, the film delivers dozens of laughs a minute. But it is Williams’ ability to impart emotion that would set the film apart from its peers; an ability that would also become characteristic of his later performances and for which he will be remembered as much as the comedy that was so effortless for him.
Anyone who remembers this film will most likely remember Robin Williams’ hollering of the now iconic line, “Good morning Vietnam!” Others will remember the witty and animated script, much of which was adlibbed by Williams. For the new audiences, there is all this to savour and more. Most will agree that the film’s ultimate strength lies in its balance between humour and solemnity. A fitting tribute to Williams’ stellar and varied career.