Last night was my first revisit with Barry Levinson's Good Morning, Vietnam since the late 80s, and while I distinctly remember enjoying the film because of Robin Williams' wild antics and surprisingly warm performance, it was last night's screening that made me realize the movie's got a whole lot more than just its leading man.
The setting is Vietnam in the mid-1960s, when the conflict was still known as a "military police action," and not yet acknowledged as a full-blown and disastrous "war." Fresh from service in Greece comes radio DJ Adrian Cronauer, whose broadcasts impressed the right officer and predicated his transfer to Saigon. Cronauer quickly makes a name for himself by way of his raucous rock 'n' comedy broadcasts, his effortlessly likable personality, and his soon-to-be famous catch-phrase: "Goooooooood Morning Vietnaaaaam!"
Needless to say, there are those who are not amused by Cronauer's on-air antics, most notably a 2nd Lt. Steven Hauk (Bruno Kirby) and a Sergeant Major Dickerson (JT Walsh). On the other side of the equation are Adrian's friends and supporters: Brigadier General Taylor (Noble Willingham), PFC Ed Garlick (Forest Whitaker), and Sgt. Marty Dreiwitz (Robert Wuhl). (Toss in some great supporting performances from Richard Edson as a clueless private and Richard Portnow as Dan "The Man" Levitan, and you're looking at a pretty excellent ensemble cast.)
Aside from the main story of Cronauer's inspired brand of insanity, his conflicts with the brass, and the fanbase he slowly starts to build, Good Morning, Vietnam branches off into quite a few unpredictable paths. One bittersweet subplot sees our hero mildly wooing a lovely Vietnamese girl, although they both know it's a pointless courtship; another involves Cronauer's friendship with a Vietnamese teen ... who may or may not be a Viet Cong terrorist.
Robin Williams was awarded his very first Oscar nomination for his performance as Adrian Cronauer, and I wouldn't argue that accolade one bit. The guy truly is a force of nature, creating a character who is instantly charming, seriously funny, and absolutely the sort of guy you'd want to drink a beer with. (Williams would also be nominated for Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King before winning a statue for Good Will Hunting.)
Most movies would have been content to have Robin Williams' non-stop shtick, mixed liberally with the whole "misfit vs. military" side-story, but Barry Levinson clearly wanted to bring some sincerity to the flick, which helped to bring a "grass-roots" perspective to the Vietnam war (or at least a part of it) that the average moviegoer would be able to understand and appreciate. (Either way, the guy did something right; with a final tally approaching $124 million in domestic box office, Good Morning, Vietnam was one of 1987's highest-grossing movies.)
Based (very) loosely on the experiences of a real man, Good Morning, Vietnam is hardly the finest film ever made about Vietnam, nor is it an entirely flawless one (some of the emotional fare leans on the cornball button just a bit, and an Act III subplot that sees Dickerson do something truly evil is just dumb), but there's a real depth and sincerity to the film that makes it really tough to dismiss as "just another Robin Williams rant-fest." Plus, Vietnam aside, the movie comes with a really sweet message, and it's that humor is important, and that laughter can do a whole lot of good. Tough to knock a movie with those kinds of morals.
Video: The movie is delivered in an anamorphic widescreen (1/85:1) transfer, and ... it ain't flawless. Colors are fine, but there's a lot of grain evident whenever your eyeballs happen to focus on the gray walls of the DJ booth or the tacky green file cabinets. Clearly this is no sort of digitally-enhanced transfer, but it's certainly not awful.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, with optional subtitles in English. A French 2.0 audio track is also included.
Extras: First up is a six-chapter Production Diary that breaks down as follows:
How the Movie Came to Be (6:21) -- Producer Larry Brezner, screenwriter Mitch Markowitz, director Barry Levinson, and the original Adrian Cronauer discuss the early creation of the film, from the mixing of real life with Hollywood hooey to fine-tuning the characters and finding the actors.
Actor Improv (9:49) -- Brezner, Levinson, Markowitz, producer Mark Johnson, and actors Robert Wuhl & Bruno Kirby focus on Williams' force-of-nature performance. Too bad the actor couldn't stop by to participate for this DVD release.
Music of the Movie (6:00) -- Levinson, Brezner, Cronauer & Markowitz discuss the impact that rock & roll music had on the story -- both the true one and the Hollywood version. And yes there's some special attention paid to Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World."
Origin of the 'Good Morning Vietnam' Sign-on (3:03) -- Mr. Cronauer explains the genesis of his now-famous signature intro ... even if Robin Williams didn't exactly do it correctly.
Shooting in Thailand (7:39) -- The usual suspects (Levinson, Johnson, Wuhl, Kirby, etc.) describe the challenges of shooting a period piece in 1987's Thailand. Apparently it gets pretty darn hot in Bangkok.
Overview of the Film a Year Later (1:37) -- Just a few last thoughts from the filmmakers on why they still dig the movie.
There's also a 12-minute series of Raw Monologues in which Robin Williams just rambles into a microphone and comes up with some really hilarious stuff and the original GMV teaser and trailer. Closing the disc out is a handful of previews for Annapolis, Flightplan, Shopgirl, The Greatest Game Ever Played, Chicken Little, Cars, and "TV on DVD."
As far as wartime comedies go, Good Morning, Vietnam might not be Dr. Strangelove or M*A*S*H, but it's got a lot of respect for the subject matter, a solid dose of really strong laughs, and a few stray threads of real heart and insight. If you haven't seen this one in a while, definitely consider picking it up again. I think it's a better film today than it was 18 years ago.