The first time Buena Vista issued this movie on DVD, it was a bare-bones affair, with little more than an opening menu and some chapter selections. This time out, the studio has gone the extra mile and not only included a few bonus items, but improved the video quality on the disc as well. Do the words “about time” mean anything? Anyway, it’s a welcome improvement.
“Gooooooooood morning, Vietnam!”
Robin Williams’ films basically fit into two categories: Those in which he plays characters different from himself (“Awakenings,” “Good Will Hunting,” “One-Hour Photo”) and those in which he plays himself. His 1987 release “Good Morning, Vietnam” falls into the latter classification. Williams plays a nonconformist deejay, Adrian Cronauer, whose anarchic personality allows the actor the chance to perform at a seemingly spontaneous level throughout much of the film.
When Williams is on, the movie can be fairly funny; when he’s not, it’s too somber for its own good. Although the film is more funny than not, and although it has gathered quite a loyal fan base since its release, on viewing it again for maybe the fourth time, I found the humor starting to wane and the messages starting to grate.
The story is set in Saigon, 1965, at the outset of the Vietnam conflict, a “police action” that would escalate into a full-fledged war over the next ten years. Cronauer, a character based on a real-life person, is an airman brought in to entertain the troops via the local Armed Forces radio station. The general (Noble Willingham) thinks Cronauer is funny; the Lieutenant and Sgt.-Major in charge of the station don’t. They think he’s out of control, no matter what the general or every combat soldier who listens to him thinks.
Williams is undoubtedly more manic than the real Cronauer ever was, and he’s not exactly held on a tight leash. The real-life Cronauer became famous for being the first deejay to play rock ‘n’ roll music in Vietnam and for developing the “Good morning, Vietnam” sign-on. But the movie Cronauer is pure Robin Williams, and it’s hard to believe that any radio announcer could keep up the steady steam of clever banter that Williams does hour after hour, day after day. The whole routine becomes, in fact, more than a little hard to believe, making Cronauer, like most of the characters in the movie, more caricatures than fleshed-out human beings.
Yet playing caricatures or not, the supporting cast are excellent. Bruno Kirby plays Lt. Hauk, Cronauer’s immediate supervisor, as a dull, nerdy, straight-arrow type who fancies himself a comic. “In my heart, I know I’m funny.” He’s frustrated at everybody because nobody respects him, least of all his men. The late, great character actor J.T. Walsh plays the villain of the story, Sgt.-Major Dickerson, a humorless, mean-spirited hard-ass who used to be a commander in the Special Forces but was reassigned to the radio station for vague medical reasons. He obviously resents it and still wants to order everyone around, including Lt. Hauk.
In a subplot, Cronauer falls for the most beautiful girl in Vietnam, Trinh, played by Chintara Sukapatana. She is charming but has little to do with the story. More to the point is her brother, Tuan, played by Phan Duc To, who tries early on to protect his sister from the guy, Cronauer, whom he considers a phony. But as things go on, Tuan and Cronauer become best friends, leading to further trouble along the way.
Of special note is Forest Whitaker as Pvt. Edward Montesque Garlick, Cronauer’s assistant in Vietnam, and probably the only non-caricature in the film. Williams may be the center of attention, but it’s really Whitaker who holds the movie together as a good-natured, down-to-earth foil for the star. Without Whitaker, we have only Williams going on at length, surrounded by a heavy-handed story line.
Director Barry Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Markowitz could have just let Williams go on for two hours improvising skits on the radio show, with the location shooting in Thailand lending a note of authenticity to the proceedings, but they figured the movie audience might want a plot, too. And therein lay the problem for them and the movie. The story line tries to combine Williams’ impromptu stand-up act with a slight variation on the movie “M.A.S.H.” It’s no “M.A.S.H.” Williams and the movie are better off when they stick to improv. When the movie ventures into plot, it becomes melodramatic and close to maudlin. When it stays on the airwaves, it’s far more engaging.
The picture quality was decent on the previous edition, but this time out it’s better. Buena Vista again remastered the film in something close to its original 1.85:1 screen ratio, nicely filling out a 16×9 television with its anamorphic dimensions. With a higher bit rate than before, the colors are deeper and less washed out, with just a tinge of grain across the image. It’s an improvement over the glassy tones one sometimes finds in DVD transfers, even if the image is still a little soft in its object delineation.
The sound is pretty much as it was the first time around, with the English soundtrack coming up well in Dolby Digital 5.1, at least in the front channels. However, the surrounds are used only sparingly. There is some especially deep bass that will satisfy the listener who owns a good subwoofer, but for the most part the audio is pretty subdued. For this special edition, the French track is now also in DD 5.1.
On their initial DVD release of “Good Morning, Vietnam,” Buena Vista offered virtually no extras. This time out, they’ve added several bonus items, which probably say as much about the film as we need to know. The main item is a thirty-four-minute “Production Diary,” divided into six chapters: “How the Movie Came to Be,” “Actor Improv,” “Music of the Movie,” “Origin of the ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ Sign-on,” “Shooting in Thailand,” and an “Overview of the Film a Year Later.” Of the bunch, I most enjoyed listening to the real Adrian Cronauer explaining how he created the sign-on, with his emphasis on a very long “Goooooooooooooooooooooooood” to cover for his occasional lack of preparedness in the mornings. The “Diary” is followed by about thirteen minutes of raw monologues, basically nonstop Williams from which many of the movie’s clips were taken.
The extras conclude with ten scene selections, down from twenty-two in the previous edition (do chapter stops take up that much space on a disc? I dunno); an original theatrical trailer and teaser, both in fullscreen; Sneak Peeks at seven other BV titles; English and French spoken languages; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
“Good Morning, Vietnam” is a movie that probably only the improvisational Robin Williams could have pulled off. He’s irreverent, impulsive, and often amusing. But don’t expect another “M.A.S.H.,” which made a strong antiwar statement without ever taking itself too seriously. Skipping the last twenty minutes of “Good Morning, Vietnam” might not be a bad idea (and DVD makes it easy to do). Williams can be a joy in any case, even if the movie gets too heavily, too obviously, and too often into pure “message.”