FILM REVIEW: Good Morning Vietnam (1987)

Dir. Barry Levinson. Run Time: 121 mins. M15+


(U.S Release Poster)

A fast-talking, wise-cracking, unorthodox radio DJ (Robin Williams) is sent to Vietnam in the days leading up to war. Here he learns life lessons, shares witticisms, mingles with the locals, and experiences the horrors that war in all its forms wreaks upon the world. An engaging premise for a film, and one which in the case is handled with great skill and care.

I think, however, the thing that sets this aside from the multitude of other Vietnam war films or any other films that use humour to throw brutality into sharp relief is that this really is not a story about war. No, it is a film about a comedian’s place in the world.

Williams plays the perpetual Pierrot: laughed at and joking so that he feels like a real life human being. When our protagonist steps off the plane into the sweltering powder-keg of sixties Vietnam he is closed to the viewer. His japes and jokes are merely a way to justify his own useless existence. He breaks the rules of military radio not to prove a point, but to win the acceptance of his pissed-off comrades at arms.

But, the death of friends and the turmoil of terrorism open him up to us for the frail and hollow man that he is, but this hollowness is what makes him such a complex and rich character. His stillness and sadness pierces to the very core of what is is to be a joker in the face of world of trouble, and it is not a pretty sight. He is now justified by a sense of purpose and the sense that others might rely on him rather than the shallow acknowledgement of one’s own existence given by others, and this is where the real tensions take place.

This deconstruction of the comedian and this insight into the defences we put up to ward of a savage reality is, in my opinion, what makes this one of the finest Robin Williams films to have been made. We, the audience, laugh not merely because Williams’ patter amuses us, but because like him we would rather not subject ourselves to the ugly truth.

Aside from soul-searching, however, this film has the added bonus of being beautifully constructed. The sixties soundtrack is woven expertly in through brilliantly shot panoramas and vistas, the editing is seamless and engaging, and no actor leaves room for doubt in the story. Forest Whitaker in particular is notable for his subtle performance of the nervous boy who grows into a confidant man, and Noble Willingham’s gentle General is a nice touch in smoothing over the rough bumps of military complexity that might have otherwise arisen from this story.

Really, my only issue with this film is, try as I might, I can’t ever seem to find as much humour as is intended in William’s quickfire rambles. I mean, there is the occasional gem of shining wit (“women in comfortable shoes” gave me a good chuckle), but mostly his quirky voices and manic ranting slide right past my funnybone without giving it the slightest twinge. This gripe, however, pales in comparison to the purpose that his comedy serves. As I said before, he doesn’t need to be funny he just needs to make the jokes so we don’t pay attention to what’s happening all around us.

So, in conclusion I’ve got to say that Good Morning Vietnam is a very good film indeed. It lets the viewer float through without much demand, but on a slightly closer inspection it reveals a wealth of intentionally glossed over depth.

SIDENOTE: Good Morning Vietnam is listed at #764 on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

RATING: 7/10


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