Not quite a year ago, Adrian Cronauer passed away at age 72 after a long illness. He was an Air Force veteran, a writer, a lawyer, and had worked various positions in radio. Obituaries, though, had more to say about Robin Williams, who himself had committed suicide roughly five years earlier.
Cronauer had written a comedy for TV based on his experiences as a DJ in Vietnam. After some twists and turns, the film was made with director Barry Levinson at the helm and with Robin Williams staring as Cronauer. The film script was heavily reworked from Cronauer’s original proposal and much of what is portrayed in the move is pure fantasy. At the time, Williams was at the top of the stand-up circuit and stand-up comedy featured huge in popular entertainment. He was known to TV audiences as Mork from Ork and teenagers across the country had memorized his routines from his comedy albums. Good Morning, Vietnam, however, showed that Williams could be a star dramatic actor, capable of top box office draw.
I recall at the time that everyone knew the catch-phrase of the film’s title. The film performed well and was critically well received. For whatever reason, it never seemed like something I wanted to watch. A Robin Williams comedy routine superimposed on a Vietnam War story didn’t seem like it would do it for me. Finally, it was the passing of Mr. Williams and Mr. Cronauer that made me decide to see what it was all about.
First off, a good chunk of the film is Robin Williams doing his routine, but as a radio DJ. It was largely unscripted. Thirty-some years on, it is both a credit to Williams’ ad-lib talents and a nod to the style of 1980s stand-up. It is also a very good-looking film. The movie was filmed entirely in Thailand so, unlike some movies, it is an entirely believable portrayal of Saigon and the surrounding rural areas. There are numerous shots of soldiers doing soldier-things, ostensibly while listening to the radio. There are anachronisms a-plenty (M-16s when everyone should have M-14s and errors in uniforms and military protocol, to name a few), but it does look sharp.
The story-line itself feels a little shallow, perhaps because so much of the screen time is dedicated to Robin’s monologues. Of course, the success of the film owes much to those monologues. I suspect the pitch was essentially the Robin Williams routine, but made into a movie. Beyond that we can also see Williams’ ability to play something other than funny. In fact, he may be better playing the darker emotions than he is at being silly. This becomes clear in his later work, but I’d say it is evident here as well.
Cronauer leveraged his fame derived from the film to advocate for Vietnam Veterans and, in particular, prisoners of war. He became Special Assistant to the Director of the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. He was never the celebrity that Robin William’s portrayal made him out to be. However, in his later years he was approached by many a veteran thanking him profusely for what he did. His voice on the radio made soldiers in Vietnam feel a little closer to home.