As if on a Robin Williams streak, Good Morning, Vietnam was the next film I watch after the very impressionable Dead Poets Society and well, it was unlike any other war film I have seen (ahem Full Metal Jacket). Instead I would list it as a comedy.
For those unfamiliar, this 1988 film is directed by Barry Levinson and it stars Robin Williams as Airman Second Class Adrian Cronauer a cheerful and outgoing radio DJ who enlisted in the Vietnam War and brought comic relief for the G.I.s, an informal label for American army soldiers. In his early days, Adrian has, without effort and very quickly, annoyed his superiors but gained immense popularity among fellow soldiers. Besides his military duties, Adrian spends his leisure time flirting with local Vietnamese girl — this is something I will come back later — make friends with a local teenage boy, and teaches the locals English.
Comedy or just plain sad
The use of comedy or black comedy to emphasise and describe a serious topic like war is not unheard of. Take Dr. Strangelove and Forrest Gump for instance. Likewise, this 1988 picture by Barry Levinson uses the same technique to as a juxtaposition of the horrific Vietnam War. The entire mood of the film is, for lack of a better word, ordinary or even peaceful. We see the characters laughing at and outrightly disrespecting their uptight boss, the locals going for grocery shopping, watching movies in the theatre and even attending English classes. The cinematography and the whole shaky cam made the film look like it is a documentary and I quite liked the aesthetics choice.
Unlike other war films, the characters in Good Morning, Vietnam, on the surface, seem largely undisturbed by the effects of war or even to the point, accepting it and making peace with it. Even when Jimmy Wah’s bar was blown up, the first reaction Jimmy had was of his bar and not his own safety. It is as though war and the effects of it are commonplace and not worth being anxious or terrified about.
The scene that left a deep impression on me was actually the “What a Wonderful World” montage and I found it just sad. The irony between the Louis Armstrong’s hit song and the images we see is just plain sad.
But the film is not all jokes and laughter as we later see Tuan or correctly known as Phan Duc To confessing his involvements in the Viet Cong bombings. We see the dilemma he too faces as he struggles with maintaining the friendship he forged with Adrian and his role as part of the Viet Cong.
Cultural impropriation or racist?
While I thoroughly enjoyed the English lessons or rather English slang Adrian gave, I cannot help but wonder if it was actually appropriate of him to do so as the locals did participate in those class with the intention to learn English.
I felt it was rather uncomfortable and rude how Adrian constantly pesters and attempts to flirt with Trinh when he obviously knew that the relationship is never going to work. This is after Garlick’s attempt to explain how courting works in the Vietnamese culture, an attempt Adrian refuses to pay any attention to. Instead, the radio DJ chooses to act on his comedic instinct, treats everything as something lighthearted and plans to have Trinh for his sexual satisfaction. While he tells Trinh upfront about his intentions and made it explicitly known that this fling is unsustainable, I do not think that makes him a better man or at least justify his flings.
And the worst offender is when Adrian mistakes and treats every single Vietnamese lady he sees on the street as every other lady because of the white conical hat they wear. That is just racism at its best.
In all, I enjoyed Good Morning, Vietnam and it certainly is an easy family-friendly film to watch. Would I say it is the best films ever made? A firm yes. But would it make it to my top-ten all-time favourite list? I am leaning towards a no.