When I was younger, I’d rapidly develop ideas of which actors were funny. Unlike my modern approach to humour, I tended toward the familiar, and toward the bigger, easily recognized and omnipresent sorts of personalities I would inherit from my parents’ viewing. Of course, there was the filter of what I would watch at the time (it would have to be consistent humour, broad humour and in colour), so there were limits, and little was surprising. Sitcoms were funny to me then (which may or may not shock the people who know me now), and I enjoyed them thoroughly. I didn’t really get George Carlin (RIP, George, even if I still don’t think you’re really all that funny) or many of the more atypical comics, but the energetic comedians who were starting to carry movies in the late 80s and early 90s were both familiar and automatically funny to me. It was strange, sort of an understanding of their funniness rather than an actual personal recognition for me. I remember this distinctly because when my parents settled in to watch this and I was about 8 or 10 years old, I didn’t get it, even though I “knew” Robin Williams was hilarious. I remember feeling really disappointed that this comedy seemed to be unfunny and wandered away (or at least mentally wandered back into the world of my toys, I don’t remember that for sure). It was knowing how much I’ve changed that I decided to revisit this film.
Adrian Cronauer (Williams) has been shipped to Saigon from Crete to act as disc jockey for the Army’s troop radio station, his reputation as a funny man preceding him. Arriving there, he’s greeted by Garlick (Forest Whitaker), the rather submissive PFC who is charged with Cronauer’s treatment and position. He’s introduced to his two superiors going forward, primarily Lt. Steven Hauk (Bruno Kirby), but also Sgt. Major Dickerson (J.T. Walsh). Hauk feels he shares a camaraderie with Cronauer because he has an interest in comedy as a hobby, while Dickerson is very straight-edged and disinterested. Disinterested, that is, until Cronauer’s first broadcast. Cronauer begins to play modern music in violation of the standards of prior broadcasts, and use humour that leaves Garlick and fellow troops Pvt. Abersold (Richard Edson) and Cronauer’s broadcasting colleague Marty Lee Dreiwitz (Robert Wuhl) in stitches. Hauk is disappointed in the humour and Dickerson is incensed by the subject matter. They bring the matter to the attention of General Taylor (Noble Willingham), who dumps the problem back in their laps because he actually likes Cronauer’s approach. Cronauer spends his time away from the mic chasing down Trinh (Chintara Sukhapatana), a pretty Vietnamese girl who catches his eye. He ends up teaching her English class, but runs into the brick wall of her brother Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran), who is protective of his sister and the differing customs. Adrian decides to use Tuan as a way in to Trinh but ends up legitimately befriending him despite this, to the chagrin of his superiors.
The selling point of this film for essentially anyone seems to be the comedy of Robin Williams, especially his “on-air” monologues, which are rapid-fire with their sudden changes in direction and approach. As I say, I was first totally unimpressed, with a slew of jokes that were too referential (and often political) for my young mind to really get. My sense of humour has changed in the interceding years, but I’ve also become a lot more stone-faced when it comes to humour. It’s not easy to get me really laughing, simply because it’s difficult for humour to really get in enough of a surprise on me that I can have that instinctual kind of laughter. All the same, I can see a more natural flow and a good delivery and respect it for what it is. A good delivery is still very engaging for me, even when the humour doesn’t do much for me, where a bad delivery is repulsive and obnoxious to me (hence my distaste for Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller and a handful of others). Williams, when he was doing so much comedy, was always enthusiastic, warm and natural, and never felt false. This was no exception–even when I wasn’t doing much more than smiling at his rapid banter, I was interested in what he was saying.
This comes to the other aspect of Robin Williams that is more fascinating. There’s this perception–which I fully admit I might have been alone in–that he was no dramatic actor, or rather, that Good Will Hunting and the like gave him a chance to shine as one. I’ve since seen a chunk of his work prior to that, some after this and before that, some contemporary to this. There’s also this itself. The movie gets a bit darker and more serious toward the end, though Williams’ Cronauer remains devoted to humour. He really is a very good lead in all capacities, often doing well enough at it that it’s lost behind the bombast of his loud and emphatic comedic senses. It’s natural for this character (and I say character because the real Cronauer is very different and has a different sense of humour) to make tension-relieving quips, so that only enhances the moments where he is within the character and responding in less humourous ways to less humourous situations. It makes me regret pigeon-holing him in my youth, unfair though that may be to criticize a no longer existent ten-year-old. It’s a very good performance from Williams, not necessarily one I would call his best, as it does still hinge on his comedy more than anything else, but it is one that is never let down.
I do recognize the concerns the studio had at the time, too–a comedy about Vietnam? That doesn’t seem like the best idea in the world, not like something that would go over well, but it works, and it works in part because Barry Levinson’s direction (including an ironic montage to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”) and in the other part because of Mitch Markowitz’ script. The film itself finally turns and not only becomes darker but becomes a sort of microcosmic examination of the conflict in Vietnam. We see the macrocosmic issue of troop morale, of soldiers dropped in by draft from a life that had none of the hardship of soldiering and how a little familiarity can help with that, but we also see the issues of infighting and generational conflict, as well as the confusion about who has what role in a foreign country, and in what part of the country was on the US’ side, and what part wasn’t, and what side the US itself was on (if any, sometimes), and just how confusing it was in general. I’m not going to say it was a perfectly accurate discussion of this, nor that it’s the best example of it, but it is a nice surprise to see the film manage to work this in organically and address the issue of Vietnam without getting openly preachy or discussing the actual issues. It deals only in interpersonal relationships within the structure of the story, and it manages to use these perfectly to illustrate its points.
This was a lot better a movie than I knew once, and further strengthens my appreciation of Levinson’s work as a director.