Earlier this week, knocked somewhat sideways by the news of Robin Williams’ sudden death I discovered that a very good friend and fellow fan of Williams’ work had never seen Good Morning Vietnam. In our best attempt to honour a huge contributor to cinema we sat down to watch it. For my part it has been several years since I watched Good Morning, Vietnam and I’m always interested to find out whether my early cinematic leanings have any value to me when I rewatch them.
Good Morning Vietnam is one of those great films that can be described as “hard-hitting comedy” or “lighthearted war film”. What this basically means is that it succeeds in having a mature and sophisticated enough script to land its message without melodrama. For a film about the Vietnam War this is one hell of an achievement since I’m not sure anyone could give Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket points for subtlety despite both being very good films. It seems that even though, in real life, you will probably hear a joke about the most recent crisis or disaster, filmmakers shy away from humour in favour of sombre reverence. This is not to say that such events do not require respect, I wouldn’t trust this kind of film in the hands of, for example, the creators of MTV’s Jackass. Yet the tendency to romanticise and dramatize historical events can often alienate an audience rather than give them a window to empathy.
Good Morning, Vietnam completely undercuts this trope. Between an excellent script and an excellent performance from Robin Williams we are presented with Cronauer (Williams) the ultimate everyman. He’s technically a military man but really he just seems like a normal guy whose job got transferred to a warzone. It’s difficult to imagine another actor who could so perfectly carry off witty DJ repartee and carry the emotional thrust of the film. On the subject of good performances this film takes on a surreal tone when you realise that Forest Whitaker is is fact playing the klutzy Garlick.
Structurally, Good Morning, Vietnam pulls a fast one on the audience. You are lured into a sense of security with this charming parody of the army. A goofball everyman befriends some locals while classic rock and roll accompanies cheery young soldiers on duty. Everything slowly spirals from there as the viewer, concurrently with Cronauer discovers that they have in fact stumbled into something far bigger and far more dangerous and important than they could ever have imagined. The film champions the understated values of consistency and temperance. By the end there’s a sad feeling of helplessness. No one seems to have done anything wrong and yet people are dying. The war continues to only hurt the people who can do nothing to change whether the war exists at all.
I have met some people who disputed that this was a war film. I think to deny that would be a great injustice. The human imagination is a very powerful thing and, as the monster is always scarier before he is seen, so the death of the young soldiers is all the more awful for the fact that we don’t even see it. Good Morning, Vietnam shows us the soldiers as human, laughing and enjoying themselves. The script doesn’t bolster their characters with any heroic or noble acts of war, as if that would make their death more tragic. Truly, Good Morning, Vietnam says more about the human condition by being a fun film to watch than many films will ever achieve.
- Entertainment: 5/5
- Artistic: 4/5
- Intellectual: 4/5
Robin Williams 1951 – 2014