Bucket List Movie #453: Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Since the beloved Robin Williams died less than a month ago, I decided to check out one of his most famous movies, 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam, from my list. While I admit that Williams was never a particular favorite of mine, his death is indeed a tragedy and a wake-up call for aiding people with depression. Williams was already a star when Good Morning, Vietnam was released, but when it earned him his first Academy Award nomination, it was then and only then that people took notice and realized this adult class clown was a bankable star and could headline a successful mainstream film. It also made Popeye a foggy memory, so that was undoubtedly a big weight off Williams's shoulders.
Good Morning, Vietnam is directed by one of the most eclectic directors in Hollywood, Barry Levinson. Levinson is one of the few directors who can get away with directing potentially (or unabashedly) schmaltzy films like The Natural and Rain Main, but he's also responsible for the acclaimed, coming-of-age classic Diner (on my list, still unseen by me), and the tart, anti-war satire Wag the Dog (my favorite of his movies). Like all directors, though, he has some ghastly entries on his resume, such as the bloated exercise of whimsy Toys, and the aggressively unfunny comedy Envy. Once again, it took me forever and a day to see a legit classic like Good Morning, Vietnam, and from what I've read, the history of how the movie came to pass is even more interesting than the movie itself. Based on Adrian Cronauer's stint as a DJ in Saigon from 1965 to 1966, Cronauer adapted his experiences into a screenplay in the late 1970s, hoping to make a TV show in the vein of two of the most popular shows at the time, WKRP in Cincinnati, and M.A.S.H. Williams, still a rising star due to the stand-up circuit and the hit sitcom Mork and Mindy, thought the story of an DJ in the midst of war-torn Saigon was a good vehicle for his manic improvisations, and through the years and the usual labyrinth of re-writes, tweaks, and revolving door of powers that be, Cronauer's script was retooled as a full-length movie.
I won't mince words, there are two reasons I didn't enjoy Good Morning, Vietnam as much as I should have. One, it's infested with egregious historical inaccuracies, and two, it unintentionally became the template for pretty much every other Robin Williams that came afterwards, and I don't mean the good ones; I mean the wretched, manipulative cinematic dung heaps like Patch Adams. If you don't believe me, allow me to prove it by going through the list:
1. Our protagonist, Airman First Class Adrian Cronauer (Williams) arrives on a U.S. base in Saigon in 1965 to work as a DJ for their radio station. He is a rapid-fire joke machine and iconoclast; he wins over a young, bright-eyed fellow soldier Edward Garlick (youthful and cherubic Forest Whitaker), while butting heads with uptight, humorless higher-ups Lt. Steven Hauk (Bruno Kirby) and Sgt. Major Dickerson (J.T. Walsh), who will stop at nothing to suppress Cronauer's subversive ways (he tells dirty jokes and plays-gasp!-rock music!).
2. Cronauer falls in love with a local Vietnamese girl, Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana), and pursues her in the most obnoxiously creepy way possible, even bribing his way into her ESL class. Do I even need to mention that she is a total Sexy Lamp and contributes nothing to the story outside of being the Love Interest?
3. Meanwhile, Cronauer befriends Trinh's little brother, Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran). Tuan starts out as protective of his sister, but then decides to get Cronauer in good with the family so he can get closer to Trinh.
4. The movie paints Cronauer as a terrific guy and friend, standing up for Tuan when some redneck soldiers start picking on him… even though he had no compunction about sitting idly by while his friends ogled Vietnamese girls as if they were gourmet cupcakes.
5. Meanwhile, the higher-ups apparently have nothing better to do than try to get Cronauer in trouble, never mind that there's a frickin' war going on and Cronauer is about as threatening and subversive as Dobie Gillis.
6. A terrible event occurs and, feeling betrayed by the system, Cronauer releases his anger on the air and gets suspended. A Crisis of Faith ensues.
7. Garlick tells a disheartened Cronauer to never give up, to do it for Johnny, the Gipper, the Mickster (sorry, I love that episode of The Simpsons), etc.
8. Cronauer realizes how much his show means to the soldiers, and his Faith is Restored.
9. But! Oh no! He's betrayed by a friend! This is supposed to mean something, but feels more like the screenplay's goal of painting Cronauer as Mr. Wonderful and 99% of the rest of the human race as total dirtbags.
10. Cronauer is finally getting kicked out of the army by big ol' meanies Hauk and Dickerson, and he Passes the Torch to Garlick, but not without a Final Touching Broadcast.
11. Oh, and he and Whatsherface end their non-relationship. Nothing is gained, nothing is lost. Why, it's almost as if it was totally arbitrary to the story.
Important caveat about that tricky phrase "based on a true story": Translated from Hollywood-ese, it roughly means "a few of the names are the same, we didn't add pixies or unicorns, that's accurate enough for us, so that should be accurate enough for you!".
The real Cronauer said in a 2001 People magazing interview that "only about 43% [of Good Morning, Vietnam] is based on real life" (http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20134081,00.html) . In an informative, 2005 article, Cronauer is described as the following:
Unlike Williams' disruptively manic disk jockey, Cronauer is a “lifelong card-carrying Republican” who took active roles in both the Dole and Bush/Cheney presidential campaigns. Another big difference between the two:while the movie's Cronauer character always seemed a hairline from full military establishment ostracization — or worse — the real-life Cronauer played within the bounds of the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) format.
“I was faced more with apathy than opposition,” recalled Cronauer, who developed his morning radio shtick listening to Rege Cordic's radio shows in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. “That meant I wasn't doing exactly what Robin Williams did. He did a lot of one-liners. Mine was more situational humor.” (http://web.archive.org/web/20120509103859/http://urgentcomm.com/mag/radio_real_life_adrian/)
The romance with the Vietnamese girl? Fabricated. The betrayal from a friend? Never happened. Kicked out of the army? He left for the very simple, unexciting reason that his tour of duty was complete.
Yes, I know embellishments are inevitable in adaptations of real life events, but I find it unacceptable how far Hollywood goes sometimes. Whether it's completely misrepresenting John Nash's mental illness and glossing over his abusive behavior in A Beautiful Mind, giving what I like to call "the shrew treatment" to Johnny Cash and Lon Chaney's first wives in Walk the Line and Man of a Thousand Faces respectively, or the von Trapps' brilliant strategy of escaping the Nazis by crossing the Alps (even now I want to smack my forehead in frustration) in The Sound of Music. Good grief, look up the mountains of inaccuracies in Hoosiers, and you'll wonder how they had any business calling it a "true story". And then there's Patch Adams (shudder).
My point is, if less that 50% of your screenplay is based on fact and the truth is too boring, why not just change the characters' names, say it's "partially inspired by actual events", and go from there? And if it's ugly, well, this isn't Hays Code Hollywood, people can handle the truth much better than you realize.
As if that weren't enough, Good Morning, Vietnam started that insufferable trend of framing the typical Robin Williams character as lovable and beyond reproach, when I think they're anything but. Whether it's the irresponsible, immature, duplicitous dad whose sensible wife rightly divorces him in Mrs. Doubtfire, to the irritating, sanctimonious, unethical titular quack in Patch Adams (sorry to keep harping on that, but that movie sticks in my craw like you wouldn't believe). The real Cronauer has said that, shock of all shocks, that if he'd done even half of the things Williams does in the movie, he'd have been court marshaled on the spot.
But it's stupid of me to blame Levinson and company for starting a trend; after all, how were they to know? It's not their fault that Hollywood will repeat a successful formula ad nauseam. And Robin Williams did make some good films where his very real talents were allowed to shine through, uninhibited by phoniness and schlock. My picks are The Birdcage, One Hour Photo, 1996's Hamlet, and, of course, Aladdin. And don't be too quick to dismiss Mork and Mindy; I thought it was a cute, harmless show, and where else can you see a male alien lay an egg that hatches into middle-aged Jonathan Winters?