“The World According to Garp” (1982) may have shown the world that the stand-up comic and star of TV’s “Mork & Mindy” had some acting chops, but “Good Morning, Vietnam” proved that Robin Williams could act and be hilariously funny in the same film.
Barry Levinson (who directed “Tin Men” the same year, and “Rain Man” in 1988) gave the gifted comedian the freedom to do what he does best--manic improvisation--as disc jockey Adrian Cronauer, whose hipper-than-khaki Armed Forces Radio Service broadcasts made him a favorite with soldiers stationed in Vietnam circa 1965 . . . and, in the film, the bane of censors and military superiors.
All of Williams’ on-air routines as Cronauer were improvised for this 1987 production, and he’s in as good of form as he would be years later doing the voiceover for the genie in Disney’s “Aladdin.” Williams’ performance earned him a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical, and his first Best Actor Oscar nomination. The Chicago-born actor, who trained at Juilliard, is as perfectly cast for this part as anyone can be, while the script from Mitch Markowitz, whose TV credits include “M*A*S*H,” offers the same delicate balance between comedy and pathos. And, of course, the premise provides a logical reason for infusing the film with 33 songs that Cronauer might have played, including “Nowhere to Run,” “What a Wonderful World,” “Game of Love,” “I Get Around,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “In the Midnight Hour,” and “Sugar and Spice.”
The real Cronauer told Vietnam magazine in 2001 that if he would have done the kind of things his character does in the film, he’d still be serving time in the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth. But it makes for great entertainment, even if Markowitz, who re-shaped Cronauer’s original treatment to better suit Williams, makes him out to be more of an anti-war crusader than he really was.
“Good Morning, Vietnam” was filmed in Bangkok and Phuket Province, Thailand, with high school students from the International School of Bangkok used as extras. This is Williams’ show, and the supporting cast has relatively few lines. But the actors make the most of it, and a number of the characters become memorable as a result--like the military aide assigned to Cronauer (Forest Whitaker) who keeps trying to start a jeep when the engine is already turning; Cronauer’s immediate superior at the radio station (Bruno Kirby), who thinks he’s funny but isn’t even close; that officer’s superior (J.T. Walsh), who’s the butt of the funniest joke in the film; and General Taylor, the cheerleader who brought Cronauer to Vietnam from his previous assignment in Crete.
Actors playing the Vietnamese locals are just as memorable, with Cu Ba Nguyen leading the way as bar proprietor Jimmy Wah, who keeps trying to score naked pictures of Walter Brennan. But kudos are also in order for the ESL class that Cronauer takes over, just so he can meet a young woman. Some of the funniest scenes revolve around the interaction between the students and Cronauer, who teaches them all he has to offer: situational Americanisms and obscenities. It’s the plot thread involving Cronauer’s personal life, interwoven with on-air threads and shots of soldiers listening to the broadcasts, that make this film work as well as it does.
Fans who are wondering if it’s worth upgrading to HD should know that the simple answer is yes. Presented in the original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, “Good Morning, Vietnam” looks mostly very good as a result of an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer that had only one really noticeable defect: a scene in which you could see where DNR had been applied to the edges of Williams’ face in one backlit scene in which atmospheric lighting apparently created a bit too much noise. There’s an acceptable level of noise in some of the other backgrounds, but in close-ups and middle shots with controlled or more subdued lighting the detail level is fairly impressive. It’s a noticeable improvement over the DVD. Colors are just a little bit more precise-looking, and edges better defined.
The audio is a lively English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and French. Except for an explosion that rocks the film, it’s mostly the music that drives the audio, spread nicely across the speakers and having just enough bass to give it heft. Dialogue is clear, but you might find yourself adjusting the volume when the music kicks in. There’s a pretty big decibel gap, but if you don’t mind that it’s a very good audio presentation.
There's not much here, but fans of the film will at least be grateful that the production diary from the Special Edition DVD was ported over. The 34-minute feature covers how the film came to fruition, how Williams’ improv went, how the music was selected, the origin of the sign-on phrase “Good Morning, Vietnam!,” shooting in Thailand, and a look back at the film a year after filming. Williams fans will also delight in 13 minutes of his raw monologues that were not included in the film (but also ported over from the Special Edition). Rounding out the bonus features are two theatrical trailers/teasers.
As Movie Met’s John J. Puccio noted, “’Good Morning, Vietnam’ is a movie that probably only Robin Williams could have pulled off.” John thought it got too heavy when the “the movie gets too heavily into ‘message,’” but it remains one of my favorite Williams’ films. And Blu-ray is a marked improvement.