Barry Levinson directs a good comedy here with a later style introducing the war movie theme that brings in the needed punch of conflict and consequences to clash nicely with the lighter affair of Robin Williams’ wisecracking humourous radio DJ character.
It’s 1965 and Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) arrives in Saigon to work as a DJ for the Armed Forces Radio Service. Cronauer’s zippy style and knack for sending up political figures in his sketches on air rub his superiors up the wrong way but his daily broadcasts soon make him a celebrity and other personnel such as Edward or ‘Garlic’ (Forest Whitaker) love the funny work he is doing. In the midst of this blossoming Vietnam DJ career Cronauer takes up teaching English to some Vietnamese and befriends a local lad called Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran). Though the sights and sounds of Saigon may start grating against his usually preppy radio hour.
It does take a while for anything of importance to happen and that can be deemed as a slow ride up until that point. There’s at least sixty minutes that pass before the first dramatic visual of war in Vietnam hits the screen and from that point you can feel the change in the movie and it’s a welcomed one. The first hour does well enough in setting up the style and charm of Williams’ Adrian but in that time he can now and then get annoying, sure he is funny and he can do impressions at the drop of a hat but even his well choreographed improvised routines on air lead you to start groaning at the severe energy this man has. At least once the huge boom and shock of what he sees happen so close to him in the centre of Saigon he becomes a more rounded grounded character, still with that spark but with humility and awareness attached.
The soundtrack throughout this movie is top rate material with poppy tunes lifting the spirit in the right places that coincide with montaged shots of army guys listening in and needing the songs of The Beach Boys, James Brown and Martha and the Vandellas to raise their spirits too. It’s a great set up in Adrian ignoring the in house rules of playing certain records as we understand more about his happy go lucky character from the choices of songs played. This in contrast to the frankly dire polka tunes green lit by Steven Hauk (Bruno Kirby) who fills in for Adrian at one point and becomes a hate mail target due to his incompetence at DJing and being totally unfunny.
The later parts of this 1987 film are much better in my opinion as they start opening up the eyes to the damages done around Vietnam by the Americans. At first it seems bad in Cronauer being all mighty US lord and teaching this school Americanisms and cursing but then his nature helps these locals have fun with the better side of America, in helping them understand language divides and playing baseball. There is still that problem of America treating themselves as the hero but at least when the Viet Cong are introduced there’s mention of why they’re doing it leading back to the threat of US soldiers ruining their lives. It’s not a truly one sided treatment though it could still do more to not be so white in letting American characters help try and save the day.
Robin Williams is in what feels like one man show mode during this film and you can completely understand why he was nominated for an Oscar as he steals the attention from pretty much everyone around him. The comedy radio speeches and his second half more serious portrayal of a man seeing the danger around him make for a three dimensional character with more than just funny bones but a heart too. Forest Whitaker does well to act opposite Williams and provides a fully likeable sidekick to the DJ as they go about and he gets a fine spotlight moment in helping Adrian Cronauer realise his vocals on the airwaves are providing helpful moral to the troops. Credit too must go to Tran, Sukapatana and the other actors who play Vietnamese locals. They give out a warmth and boost of Asian culture amongst the militarised world Cronauer comes from.
It’s not a perfect insight into the war that went on in Vietnam but it is a perfect demonstration of Robin Williams fine work as a comedic actor. There’s a good enough level of both humour and war like drama in this film and by the end you leave with a different feeling than you went in with which is a sign of a good movie to me.