Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Historical (In)Accuracy

Film: Good Morning, Vietnam
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

When looking at a film like Good Morning, Vietnam, you have a few options. You can assume that Hollywood played with it a little, but that it’s basically accurate. You’d be wrong to do that, but you could do it. You could also get really bent out of shape that there’s little similarity to the Adrian Cronauer depicted in the film and the real guy—a life-long Republican who worked within the guidelines of military edicts for his entire career. Or, and this is recommended, you can forget about historical accuracy and look at this simply as a movie and judge it on that basis. That’s the best idea because there’s nothing in this film that complies with history.

Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) is brought to Vietnam to help build the morale of the troops as a radio performer. He’s been called in from Crete mainly because he’s very good at what he does; he’s funny and the troops seem to like his brand of humor and his taste in music. He’s greeted at the airport by Edward Montesque Garlick (Forest Whitaker), who is a bit of a nerd and worried about getting into trouble, but also sees problems in the army around him. We’re also quickly introduced to Marty Lee Dreiwitz (Robert Wuhl), who thinks he’s funny and isn’t (a statement true of both the character and of Robert Wuhl himself). On the “bad guys” side, we have Lieutenant Steve Hauk (Bruno Kirby) who is supremely unfunny and a martinet and Sergeant Major Dickerson (J.T. Walsh) who has a massive stick up his back porch. These two take an immediate dislike to Cronauer and do everything they can to keep him off the air, morale be damned.

Cronauer is immediately fascinated by Vietnamese women, and focuses on one in particular, who refuses to talk to him. As a method of getting to know her, he takes over her English language class and, as a precursor to getting the girl, meets up with her brother, Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran). Tuan doesn’t trust Cronauer, but over time learns to, and eventually arranges a meeting between the American and his sister, Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana).

Much of the time is spent in Jimmy Wah’s, a local bar/restaurant run by the eponymous owner (Cu Ba Nguyen), who is flamingly and overtly gay and has a fetish for Walter Brennan. As the film progresses, the relationship between Cronauer and Tuan takes a darker turn. Tuan, for instance, pulls Cronauer out of Jimmy Wah’s moments before the place explodes, and Tuan also seems to be able to move through Viet Cong territory with relative ease.

The film essentially becomes a battle between the disc jockeys—Cronauer in particular but also the other working stiffs in the unit—and those more dedicated to living by the book. This includes Hauk and Dickerson mainly, but also includes the Army censors (Dan and Don Stanton who look so much alike that it almost seems like a camera trick instead of identical twins). Cronauer clashes with the brass on a near-daily basis, which leads to his being pulled from the air and replaced by the supremely, dreadfully unfunny Hauk in one of the film’s best moments.

Good Morning, Vietnam isn’t quite sure of what it wants to be. Is it a comedy about dealing with the brass and people without a sense of humor? Yes, it is in part, and these sequences tend to be the strongest in the film. Is it a drama about relationships, racism, and nationalism? Yes, it’s that too, especially as we delve into the relationship between Cronauer and Tuan and Cronauer and Trinh. Is it about inefficiency and stubbornness, and playing things too close to the book instead of living? Yes to that as well. Because it is all of these things, it’s also none of these things completely, and as much as the film tries desperately to gel into a unified, complete story, it never really does.

It’s still a strong performance from Williams. The best scenes in the movie are those in which he is able to improvise and work with a very loose script and material he’s been given as a starting point. His radio rants are staggering and manic, offering glimpses of comedic genius, improvisational skill, and excellent timing. Similarly, his immediate responses to jabs from his superiors are funny and delivered perfectly. It’s elsewhere the film seems to break down. Williams can certainly pull off relationships in film, but here, it doesn’t seem to work as well as the straight comedy does.

Good Morning, Vietnam also seems to mark a slow slide into sentimentality for Williams, comedic films that seem to have a moral message that never quite pans out or that comes out not as heartwarming and real but as sap and cheese. It was a long, slow slide through films like Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, Hook, Toys, and Jack, finally culminating in the diabetes-inducing Patch Adams that marked a frequently unfunny, unentertaining slide in the man’s career. That he’s broken out of this in the main is a good thing. And while his performance here is a strong one, there’s no mistaking that his dozen-year, face-first slide into sappy sentimentality started here.

Watch the movie for him, for Forest Whitaker, and for Bruno Kirby. Williams is at his comedic best here, at least in the moments he is allowed to be funny. When the relationships shows up, fast forward, or go make yourself a sandwich.

Why to watch Good Morning, Vietnam: When over-the-top Robin Williams works, it really works.
Why not to watch: History is tossed out the window for dubious dramatic effect.


  1. I still have some kind of strange fondness of Robin Williams, even though I agree completely that he turned into a too cheesy, predictable and sentimental figure. It's been to long since I watched something with him in though to be certain about my views though. Basically I mostly have a memory of once having liked him, but I can't quite remember why I did or exactly when the shift happened. It could be as you say that this marked the beginning of the turn.

  2. Robin Williams is really at his best when the director can rein him in and keep him focused. I look at a film like Nolan's Insomnia as an example of Williams giving a focused performance, and it's a really good one. Nolan is in control, so Williams didn't do an extended improv performance.

    When he's good, he's really, really good. When he's bad, he's terrible.

  3. I haven't seen GM:V but a friend of mine always recommends it and it's a little disappointing to find out that the real person was so much different. But I'm interested to see how Robin Williams does in a role about 80% of the time so I think I will still check this out.

  4. As I've said above, when Williams has a director who keeps him in line, he's worth watching. In this film, we really get the best of both worlds--Williams is allowed to go off on crazy tangents and the best of these are kept. Outside of the studio, he's a human being.

    Watch this as a film, not as history. It works as a film.

  5. I saw this when it came out and I remember thinking, "Williams finally has a role that takes advantage of his gifts. He may never have a better role for that." I was wrong, of course, because he went on to play the genie in Aladdin and the animation was able to do what Williams physically could not. That's off the point, though.

    For me, the whole reason to see and recommend Good Morning Vietnam begins and ends with Williams. I agree that the others you mentioned are talented and do a good job, but they faded into the background for me.

    My mind's taking tangents, but this is semi-related. One of my favorite moments related to this film is that Williams was nominated for an Oscar. They always have the prior year's Best Actress winner announce this year's Best Actor award. The presenter was Marlee Matlin, who was deaf, and who was mostly mute at the time. She had been working hard in the prior year to learn to form sounds so that she could expand her film roles. When it came time for her to announce the nominees she did a good job and when she came to Williams she did the name of his film as "Goooooooooood Morning Vietnam". The camera cut to Williams in the audience and he was tickled pink by it. It was a great little moment.

  6. I didn't see Good Morning Vietnam when it came out, thought I was going to the movies a lot in 1987 and 1988. I finally saw Good Morning Vietnam this afternoon, and I was reminded why I didn't want to see it back in 1987. The trailer and the promos had lots of little snippets of the on-air banter, and a lot of it's just not that funny to me.

    I've seen quite a few Williams movies that I like, but he is sometimes really hard to take. And some of his Adrian Cronauer material is not funny. I mostly don't like Williams' black characters or his lisping gay stereotype character, not so much because they're offensive but because he doesn't really have any funny material to go with them apart from the accent. So they're just stereotypes, and the alleged humor seems to be solely based on making fun of the way blacks or gays (allegedly) talk.

    (And I'm not saying that Williams is a racist or a homophobe; I'm just saying that humor based simply on stereotypes is not funny to me.)

    I imagine that material like this would have been funny in the early 1960s (when the film is set) but it was starting to get a bit dated in 1987 (when the film was made) and it's getting awfully creaky in 2017. It reminds me (a little) of the feeling I get when I see a really old movie where someone I really like is performing in blackface because sho nuff ain't those black folks simultaneously funny and musical. (Have you seen Holiday Inn? Marjorie Reynolds's hair in the blackface scene? OMG!)

    Fortunately there's a lot more to Williams' performance in God Morning Vietnam than making fun of homosexuals and black people. An awful lot of the rest of it is HILARIOUS! The artillery guy, the intelligence guy, the soldiers in the field, and a lot of the off-air stuff, especially about Nixon (who looked like a statesman looking back during George W. Bush and now looks like a saint under President Shrieking Man-Baby), is very funny. (Although I really really could live without bringing Pat into it in the scene where he edited the interview.)

    Another problem with the film is that it's more than a little condescending to the Vietnamese. But I suppose if I want to get away from that, I need to see a film about the Vietnam War made by the Vietnamese.

    I see why Williams was nominated for Best Actor but I also see why the film WASN'T nominated for Best Picture.

    If The List REALLY REALLY needs a Vietnam War comedy, I'd suggest either Operation Dumbo Drop or Tropic Thunder.

    1. Comedy is kind of underrepresented as a genre on The List just as horror is, although I think it's for different reasons. With horror, I think it's a lack of respect for the genre as a whole despite the fact that horror is often the most prescient genre and the one that reacts the most quickly and most accurately to whatever the zeitgeist. There's a reason that 2017 was such a great year for horror movies.

      With comedy, it's because it's hard for things to translate well over time. What's funny in one era is terribly unfunny in the next. Try watching the first season of Saturday Night Live, for instance. What was deliriously funny back then is painful now. Lots of comedies are like that. It takes something special to remain funny across decades.

      I think this is a good film, but not a great one. I tend to be a lot more interested in comedy performers when they take on serious roles. Williams was always more interesting in a serious role, even one tinged with comedy.

  7. As someone who has immersed himself in the time, watching this movie right now, when my alter ego (Galactic Journey) is in October 1965, GMV is nothing short of brilliant.

    Is it an historically accurate biopic. No.

    Is it an accurate depiction of the military? No.

    But as a tone poem representing the American situation in Vietnam in late Summer/early Fall 1965, it is really really good.

    (and credit where it's due: Williams basically did a movie-length improv that was completely based in the period. It's absolutely brilliant.)

    1. The idea of viewing this as a tone poem makes a certain amount of sense. It's less a pure re-creation of the time and people and more an evocation of the mood. I can accept that.

      And I agree that Williams is genius in this--it's one of his best performances in a career that had a lot of great ones.

  8. I had a problem with the bias against American servicemen. Would a bar like Jimmy Wah's really have been taken over by soldiers who brutalize Vietmamese who try to enter while stroking local prostitutes. People have had such a long time to internalize anti-War myths that the don't question scenes like this, but I thought it was like something out of a Soviet film!

    1. It's an interesting question, and I don't have an answer for you. You're right about the idea of anti-war myths in film, but it's probably just as true of pro-war myths...and myths in general. Tropes, after all, happen for a reason.