Good Morning, Vietnam will be forever marked in my memory as The First Rated “R” Movie I Ever Saw. I was still in elementary school and I watched it with my parents. (My parents put very strict controls on what media I was exposed to as I grew up, I think all of the other Rated “R” movies I saw before I turned 17 – Interview with the Vampire, The Bodyguard, Event Horizon and not much else – I watched illicitly with friends. I have always felt strongly that my parents made a good choice in this regard; I am glad of the fact that I have never been desensitized to images of blood and violence.) I’m quite sure, watching it for the second time with adult eyes, that I probably didn’t understand a lot of the jokes; after all, I didn’t remember them. The only thing I remembered from that childhood viewing was that Robin Williams’ character fell in love with a Vietnamese woman and it didn’t work out between them, and that this was sad to me. (If you think I needed to give you a spoiler alert about that last sentence, I’m going to tell you to can it.) With adult eyes, I can see that the dynamic between the character of Adrian Cronauer and the character of Trinh is more nuanced than what many people would consider love to be. For example, it’s more nuanced than the early stages of the relationship I had with the man who is now my husband. But I believe it’s still a kind of love, possibly the saddest kind.
But really, there’s a lot more going on in Good Morning, Vietnam than a love story. What makes this such a good film?
I would assert that the primary purpose of Good Morning, Vietnam is to individualize and personalize the Vietnam conflict. It does so by ensuring that every character in it, from one-star generals and uptight supervisors to Vietnamese nationals “waiting to die!” in hypothetical situations, come across as fully human. Adrian Cronauer is certainly the film’s protagonist and a lot of narrative time is spent on exploring his humorous talent, but all of the other characters are given the opportunity to express their humanity. Every dimension is represented here – from vulnerability to power-hungry, from cheerful to tragic, from small-minded to grappling with political and economic forces larger than a human brain evolved to master. I’ve heard it said that Stalin once quipped that while one human death is a tragedy, a million human deaths is a statistic, and I do believe it’s true that we learn more easily as a species from the stories and anecdotes we tell each other than from mass research and number-crunching. Narratives like Good Morning, Vietnam make it easy for people like me born after the conflict “ended” to understand the painful truth of the situation. According to imdb.com, Adrian Cronauer was a real person, and though many liberties were of course taken in scripting this film to make points, I do believe that Good Morning, Vietnam captures a human truth of the 20th century, mostly through careful characterization. That’s no easy feat!
There’s no way I can review this film without giving credit where credit is due for one of my favorite actors, Forest Whitaker. From The Crying Game to Phone Booth and Panic Room, all the way through a portrayal of the political maniac Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, Whitaker has NEVER disappointed me and in case you’re not a regular reader of this blog, I feel obligated to inform you that I am a person it is easy to disappoint. Whitaker brings dignity to undignified moments, humility to greatness, and charisma to an unflattering physique. Like all of the acting greats, I bet he could make reading the back panel of a child’s cereal box somehow fascinating. I could watch Forest Whitaker movies all day long. Maybe someday I’ll take some time off from the world to do just that, he’s certainly got quite a body of work at this point. Until then I will just have to be content to feel my heart leap with joy when I see his name or face show up on the screen for the first time in unexpected moments, like I did within seconds of the start of Good Morning, Vietnam. He’s so young in this film! And yet in his youthful enthusiasm, his later grandeur and presence still come across. Well done, Whitaker, as always.
The central ideological conflict of Good Morning, Vietnam is individualism vs. conformity. Adrian Cronauer comes across as so likeable because while he demonstrates iconoclasm, he also gets visibly intimidated by the army authority figures that confront him and only becomes overtly aggressive on behalf of other people, like Vietnamese nationals. He is practically the definition of righteous, both in the literal and slang meanings of the term. How he pulls this off practically in the same breath as stalking Trinh and paying for prostitutes is a true miracle of Hollywood. But as I’ve already said earlier in this review, this is not “The Adrian Cronauer Story”, and the question of individualism vs. conformity echoes higher up the chain, in the conflict of attitudes between the U.S. and that unfortunate Asian nation, Vietnam.
Many people in the U.S. are familiar with the controversial Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. One of the times that I have visited DC, I have seen another Vietnam War Memorial which might be more controversial if it were more well-known. Unlike the famous memorial, which gives the name of the U.S. dead, the modern art piece I saw was shaped like a gigantic sideways Rolodex and each leaf of the Rolodex was covered with computer-generated names of hypothetical Vietnamese dead. This alternate Vietnam War Memorial underscored to me the scope of what the U.S. did in, and to, Vietnam. We have the luxury of naming our dead. I have faith that if the Vietnamese had that luxury, the makers of the modern art piece would have used their roster. Instead, the artists resorted to hypothetical names. This difference of power haunts me.
Something else haunts me about the Vietnam War (it was a police action only in the sense that a tornado is an air current): I feel like my country has written off Vietnam as beyond hope. Much like the entire continent of Africa, with the possible exception of Egypt (because Egypt isn’t really part of Africa, right? It’s Mediterranean, right? Cleopatra can’t have been a black woman – she was too beautiful, right? Isn’t that the story we tell each other?). It’s like we burned somebody’s house down and never got taken to court because we’re the police… and we don’t even have the decency to really help the few people who managed to escape the blaze, we just shrug and say “The house is ashes now, you get to be homeless, thank you for playing.” I believe it’s never too late for justice and mercy. I believe it’s never too late to admit when I have made a mistake, and I believe it’s never too late to say “Hey, this society is rampaging toward a cliff, can’t we walk a different direction at a reasonable pace now?” A little taste of wise mind can make all the difference.
So if you haven’t watched Good Morning, Vietnam yet, and you’re living a comfortable life in the United States of America, I think you should drop what you’re doing and watch it this Monday, on the day we celebrate the life of George Washington. Awareness is the first step toward active participation in society. Learn this particular truth of the 20th century, and understand that you are not separate from history.
Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0. Why not 5.0? Because Adrian Cronauer’s sense of humor involves cashing in on a lot of stereotypes that I don’t find particularly amusing, and also, he really does stalk Trinh, and that’s not cool in my book. I guess the truth of the 20th century doesn’t get a 5.0 here.