“The best part of waking up is napalm in your cup.” Academy Award winners Robin Williams and Forest Whitaker star in Oscar winning director Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam.
Cast of Characters:
Adrian Cronauer – Robin Williams
Eddie Garlick – Forest Whitaker
Second Lieutenant Steven Hauk – Bruno Kirby
Staff Sergeant Marty Lee Dreiwitz – Robert Wuhl
Sergeant Major Phillip Dickerson – J. T. Walsh
Brigadier General Taylor – Noble Willingham
Tuan – Tung Thanh Tran
Director – Barry Levinson
Screenplay – Mitch Markowitz
Producer – Larry Brezner & Mark Johnson
In 1965, Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) arrives in Saigon, Vietnam to work as a DJ for the Armed Forces Radio Service. From his first show, Cronauer’s rapid-fire and irreverent form of broadcasting becomes an instant hit with many in the military, including Freddie Garlick (Forest Whitaker), Staff Sergeant Marty Lee Dreiwitz (Robert Wuhl) and even Brigadier General Taylor (Noble Willingham). However, his unorthodox style irks two of his superiors, Second Lieutenant Steven Hauk (Bruno Kirby) and Sergeant Major Phillip Dickerson (J. T. Walsh), who push hard for Cronauer’s removal. This, despite the fanbase he has cultivated from the moment he first aired.
Unlike other Vietnam-themed films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Casualties of War, Good Morning, Vietnam was a lighter approach to the subject. The film doesn’t really take a strong stance on either side of the Vietnam issue, but that wasn’t the point here. Good Morning, Vietnam isn’t so much about the war as it is those within the war, and both director Barry Levinson (who prior to this film, directed Diner, The Natural and Tin Men – all great films) and writer Mitch Markowitz fill this movie with complex, fully humanized characters. That’s not to say Levinson and Markowitz shy away from the devastation of war, but those moments are more used as catalysts for the aforementioned characters.
By 1987, Robin Williams was already well-known in stand-up and sitcom circles, and even had a few feature films under his belt (The World According to Garp being one his most underrated), including work with directors Robert Altman (Popeye) and Harold Ramis (Club Paradise). It wasn’t until Good Morning, Vietnam, though, when everyone began to take notice that Williams could be the A-list actor he would eventually become.
At the time, this was Williams’s best performance by a mile, and even today it remains as one of his best. Most, if not all, of the scenes done in the radio booth were improvised by Robin. That showed not only how razor-sharp his wit was, but also how smart Levinson was to not tamper with a good thing, and to just let it flow if it’s working and benefits the film. Together, Williams and Levinson created some dazzling and energetic sequences when Cronauer’s on-air.
But it’s not just the laughs Robin created that made his performance great. It’s the change we see in his character that makes the overall film enjoyable. At first, Adrian comes off as a class clown character that seems to have no problem mocking his superiors (although, at times, even they have it coming), and is in this only ’cause it’s a job. I mean, this is a man who decided to teach English to the Vietnamese all for the sake of hopefully picking up a girl (a nice little romantic subplot that works). Once reality sets in, though, and he starts to see the horror that’s going around him, he begins to see just how important what it is he’s doing. In one of the film’s finest scenes, Williams bumps into some troops on their way into battle. At first, he’s not in the mood to do some improv for them, but reluctantly gets into character for them. That’s when it hits him just how much he means to these soldiers. These are kids on their way out to risk their lives. To them, Cronauer’s more than just an hour long set of jokes and funny voices. He’s an hour long escape from the nightmare they face in the jungle, and something as simple as a laugh makes all the difference for them.
Backing up Williams is a fine supporting cast of familiar faces. Forest Whitaker (in a breakthrough role) and Robert Wuhl deliver fine work as Adrian’s colleagues. The late Bruno Kirby is great fun as a snarky twerp superior officer (“And if you do… And if you doooooo!!“), and makes a terrific get under your skin foil for Williams. Another late, underrated character actor, J. T. Walsh proves an equally memorable foil to Williams as well. Walsh gives a fine performance, but if there was any quibble I had about his character, it’s that the third act has him acting a little too dastardly than what was necessary.
Anchored by a strong Robin Williams performance that showcased both his manic comic energy and range as a dramatic actor, Good Morning, Vietnam is an easy mix of laughs and heart while never once taking the somber events within the film lightly. This was director Barry Levinson in the prime of his career, but more importantly, moviegoers got to see the breakthrough of an A-list star.