Saturday, April 04, 2015

80s Revisited: Good Morning, Vietnam

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Directed by Barry Levinson; written by Mitch Markowitz; produced by Larry Brezner & Mark Johnson.

I've always liked this movie; this wasn't meant to be a case of re-evaluating as much as a case of "hey, I haven't seen that movie I really liked in a long time, let's watch that again." But I did end up viewing it differently as a grown man than I did as a high schooler, so I thought I'd write a short little something about it.

I was 11 when this movie came out, so I didn't see it until I saw it on ABC one night in high school. If you know me really well, you'll understand just how much I was enjoying the movie; I hate watching movies edited for broadcast television, and I've refused to do it since I was a kid. I also really won't watch a movie I've never seen before unless I can see it from the beginning. But I happened to flip past ABC during that first big Robin Williams radio montage and got caught up in it. You know I've always liked Robin Williams. Hey, I was just the right age to really love Mork & Mindy when it was originally airing: 4.

And then Robin said: "Seeing as how the V.P. is such a V.I.P., shouldn't we keep the P.C. on the Q.T.? 'Cause if it leaks to the V.C. he could end up M.I.A., and then we'd all be put on K.P." And that was it: I lost it. I needed to watch this movie, and I didn't turn away from it.

I don't remember how much was edited for TV, and besides, I very quickly rented it from Blockbuster and watched it again, but I'll never forget that moment and how big my reaction was to it. The kind of laughter that totally disarms you.

Not having seen the movie in a while, it felt fresh to me. I remembered so many of Robin Williams' lines in the DJ booth, because I had the soundtrack as a kid and a number of them are on it. (I've always been a huge fan of the oldies--my favorite radio station as a kid was Magic 104.3 and I listened to Dick Biondi, and this soundtrack and the one from The Big Chill were long in my rotation. With Williams' improvs present, the soundtrack was like the combination of my two favorite kind of records in high school--an oldies compilation and a comedy album. All it would need was some film score on it to hit the trifecta.) So, yeah, I remembered a lot of that stuff. And it's all great, and it's all masterful, but what was really a revelation to me was how it treated the Vietnam War.

Very, very loosely based on the military career of vice-chairman of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign Adrian Cronauer, the movie takes place in South Vietnam in 1965, as the war was beginning to escalate. Barry Levinson--normally a director I don't care much for--does some interesting things with montages and with the teletype news machines to give you a sense of the escalation. At the beginning of the movie, the teletypes report that the number of American troops in Vietnam is being upped to 75,000. By the end of the movie, five months later, it's 300,000. The montage scenes show bits of American imperialism in action, the... let's say overly casual way some soldiers treated the people of their host country, and the inevitable death and destruction. By the end, America is building forts and preparing for a long military engagement. But it's a neat device to see this war ominously growing around the edges of the story, which is really about a guy caught up in a bureaucracy who feels powerless and wants to woo a girl who won't woo him back. (And that storyline is handled with a maturity and a respect for the young lady that I still find surprising today, which is kind of sad.)

The masterful comedy scenes, of course, are really a counter to the whole movie, which has funny, lighthearted moments, but which has moments of dramatic seriousness. A club bombing. Bureaucratic censorship. A couple of betrayals. You know, as a kid I never quite got that Adrian's commanding officer purposely tried to get him killed by the Viet Cong. There's some chilling stuff in here, and it depicts the comedy as less of an oasis than as a catharsis, a way to deal with a situation that is becoming maddeningly, overwhelmingly confusing.

I respect that the movie has no real answers to the complications of the Vietnam War. Adrian's Vietnamese friend betrays him, but he has reasons that are hard to argue. He's not in an ideological struggle; he just wants the colonial powers out so his friends and family stop getting murdered.

It's easy to remember this movie as a great comedy--it is. But there was a lot more to it that I found very compelling and that had somehow been drowned out of how I remember the movie. And it's an excellent movie.

Great 80s cast, by the way: Forest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby, the late JT Walsh, Arthur Edson, and the underrated Robert Wuhl. Robert Wuhl was in a few movies I really love from the time period. I still end up seeing Bull Durham every other year or so.

But Robin Williams is really astounding in this movie. This is the first movie with him that I've watched since he died, and knowing now that he struggled with depression his whole life--and having read that he seriously doubted how well he was doing with the comedy in this movie, often fearing that he was doing a terrible job--gave his performance an extra dimension for me. Because you know so much of the comedy is improvised, you can see the bits where he's worried he's messing up, or the highs where he's just letting loose. The scene where he talks to soldiers in the 1st Infantry was always touching, but seeing how genuine his reactions are, how happy he is to be making people laugh, to be getting that connection... I couldn't watch it without tearing up.

This is a great 80s Revisited for me because I went back to a movie I already liked and ended up loving it even more.


Roger Owen Green said...

I have the LP soundtrack and it IS a funny film. But yes, definitely has a dark side, because that war did. A couple anniversaries coming up in the next month- 40 years since the fall of Saigon, 45 years since Kent State.

Some Guy said...

Great post, SF. Yet another thing we have in common - I listened to Magic 104.3 almost exclusively in the car growing up and have fond memories of the "Wild I-tralian" Dick Biondi.