Art imitates life...well, sort of, in Barry Levinson's Good Morning Vietnam (1987) a very loose adaptation of the experiences of Armed Forces Radio D.J., Adrian Cronauer. In 1979 the real Cronauer attempted to garner interest in turning his tenure in Vietnam into a television sitcom. Unfortunately, networks were disinterested in both his premise and the war. Fast forward a decade later and at least part of Cronauer's dream becomes a reality. But the idea Cronauer pitched to Hollywood is decidedly very different from the film that ultimately premiered in theaters. Good Morning Vietnam plays fast and loose with Cronauer's life story. In fact, apart from its general tenor and a few key elements derived from Cronauer's real life experiences, the screenplay by Mitch Markowitz is a work of total fiction.
Second class airman Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) arrives in Saigon in 1965 to host a program for the Armed Forces Radio Service. It is Brigadier Gen. Taylor's (Nobel Willingham) hope that Cronauer's glib take on current events will stimulate the morale of the troops stationed in Vietnam. Cronauer is immediately befriended by Private Edward Garlick (Forest Whitaker). But his reception with commanding officers Lieutenant Steve Hauk (Bruno Kirby) and Sergeant Major Dickerson (J.T. Walsh) is frosty at best. Neither wants Cronauer on their watch and neither cares for his particular brand of humour.
Despite this friction, Cronauer proves to be untouchable; thanks to the support of his listeners and Taylor's backing. He also befriends his fellow disc jockeys, Mart Lee Driewitz (Robert Wuhl) and Dan 'the man' Levitan (Richard Portnow), buying them drinks and women inside Jimmy Wah's (Cu Ba Nguyen) plush local watering hole. Sometime before, an ex G.I. promised Wah nude pictures of actor Walter Brennan and Wah is counting on Cronauer to fulfill that request. At work Cronauer changes the program's format from easy listening to rock and roll. He further infuriates his superiors by poking endless fun at the President, his daughters, his policies and the general absurdity of the actions taken by the White House that are progressively leading to an escalation of the war.
Cronauer meets and becomes infatuated with Trinh (Chintara Suapatana); a young Vietnamese girl taking English lessons. She is distant and untrusting, but Cronauer pursues her - even bribing her teacher to let him take over the class. But Cronauer is thwarted in his romantic advances by Trinh's brother, Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran) who believes that Cronauer's influence can only corrupt his sister's honor. Cronauer is reprimanded by Dickerson after he involves himself in a brawl over some Vietnamese prostitutes at Jimmy Wah's. And although Cronauer takes his lumps, he continues to broadcast as he likes and teach the unorthodox English classes to be near Trinh. Impressed by Cronauer's sense of honor, Tuan sets him up on a date with Trinh's whole family serving as their chaperone. Cronauer is generous with his money and buys everyone a seat inside the local theater.
Later on, Tuan rushes to Jimmy Wah's - reportedly to get Cronauer to meet Trinh privately. The two are barely a few feet outside the bar when the entire establishment is blown to bits. Cronauer is shaken and does not see what is plainly a setup. Tuan is a Viet Cong operative who has risked his own life to save his friend from the explosion at the last possible moment. Cronauer attempts to broadcast news of the incident and is promptly taken off the air. He becomes bitter and cynical about the U.S. involvement in Saigon and vows to quit his job rather than play his part in the cover up. This suits Dickerson and Hauk fine. But Taylor commands his underlings to reinstate Cronauer with all possible speed.
Dickerson devises a ploy to rid himself of Cronauer by sending him into dangerous terrain to interview the soldiers. During his trek into the jungle Cronauer's jeep is blown off the road by a Viet Cong land mine. Tuan risks his life again to rescue Cronauer. But this time he is revealed to be Phan Duc To, a VC operative. Gen.Taylor cannot ignore this association. Cronauer loses his job and is ordered to leave Vietnam. On his bittersweet ride to the airport, Cronauer convinces Garlick and his escort to allow him one final visit to Trinh and his 'English class'. There, Cronauer stages a spontaneous softball game with the students and gives Garlick a recorded message to play on the air as his farewell address to the troops. Garlick remains true to his word, then assumes the reigns of Cronauer's old show.
Good Morning Vietnam benefits immensely from Robin William's explosive shoot from the hip improvisation. Whenever the screenplay paints itself into a melodramatic corner Levinson simply cuts to Williams as Cronauer seated behind a microphone and belting out a litany of scathing satire guaranteed to tickle the funny bone. The disappointment, of course, is that the screenplay has been artificially plumped out with pure pulp. This isn't Adrian Cronauer's stories from Vietnam. It is pure fabrication almost from beginning to end. That said, Mitch Mankowitz's screenplay gets a lot of mileage from its liberal slant on the big bad U.S. government invading a small country and turning everything upside down. This is a fairly enjoyable movie that glosses over its points and, in the final analysis moralizes Adrian Cronauer as a crusader and figurehead championing peace and his fellow G.I.
Buena Vista Home Video's Blu-ray easily bests its previously issued DVD on every level. The image is tighter, brighter and more refined. A few scenes retain a thick patina of grain that seems slightly unnatural, but on the whole, this is a faithful reproduction of the theatrical experience. Colors are bold and bright. Contrast levels are bang on allowing Peter Sova's cinematography to really shine through. Flesh tones are very natural in appearance. The DTS audio delivers the goods, particularly on the catalogue of vintage pop tunes that are interpolated throughout the story. The explosion at Jimmy Wah's is also appropriately aggressive. Extras include a featurette with the real Adrian Cronauer, interviews with Levinson and cast and crew, outtakes and the original theatrical trailer. Good stuff, all around.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)