This 1987 Robin Williams classic is usually called a comedy but after watching it for the first time this past week, I would have to say that it’s a bittersweet comedy. Yes, the Williams character, Adrian Cronauer, is a totally off-the-wall, zany comedian who delights the troops, but he is also a trusting, sensitive, totally unprejudiced person who does incredibly great P.R. for the U.S. among the Vietnamese in Saigon. While his radio program is completely irreverent (Williams improvised the on-air segments), and pokes fun at American icons (such as Walter Cronkite), he sees the other side of the American presence in Viet Nam — American bigotry, Vietnamese frustrations, the wounded and dead servicemen, the censorship of the news — and he develops an empathy for both the nationals and the men on the line.
Loosely based on the true story of a real DJ on Armed Forces Radio, and set in 1965 when the number of troops increased in staggering numbers, or, as director Barry Levinson put it “the year Jekyll became Hyde”, the movie tried to show the Vietnamese as people rather than the enemy. Cronauer, in addition to gaining the support of the troops, is aided by Edward Garlick (played by Forest Whitaker), and supported by General Taylor, who has brought Cronauer in from Crete (played by Noble Willingham) to liven up the station. With their backs up against him are Sgt. Major Dickerson (J.T. Walsh) and Lt. Stephen Hauk (Bruno Kirby), who are totally by the book, although in Dickerson’s case, he’s also “just plain mean.”
The story line has Cronauer desperate to meet a beautiful Vietnamese girl named Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana) and ends up teaching an English language class attended by her and her brother, Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran), in an attempt to befriend her. He and Tuan become friends; unfortunately, Tuan is also a member of the Viet Cong.
There are many things Cronauer discovers about fighting a war in Viet Nam that shake him. At one point, he is lost in enemy territory and comments about how impossible it must be to fight in the hot, dense jungle — he and Garlick have been walking in circle for many hours but think they may have made it to Cambodia. Tuan lures him from Jimmy Wah’s bar just before a bomb explodes killing two servicemen. Cronauer is badly shaken, and when the news item is censored from his afternoon show, he locks himself in the studio and reports it anyway, getting himself suspended. When Tuan rescues him from enemy territory, he learns that Tuan is Viet Cong. He faces discharge but worse, he feels betrayed by a friend. Still, he tries to warn him that authorities know who he is and that he will be shot. His leaving of the country is filled with gentle humour and poignancy, as he teaches his English class to play baseball using a stick and fruit, and Trinh says a very tender goodbye. On arriving at the airfield, dead and wounded are being removed from planes, and the music is somber.
This is the first movie for which Williams received an Oscar nomination and critics were unanimous that it showed his extreme versatility and fine acting ability. It was shot on location in Bangkok, which gives an authenticity to the production, and both the humour and the poignancy will stay with you long after the movie ends. * * * * *