There was indeed a disc jockey named Adrian Cronauer who worked for Armed Forces Radio in Saigon during the early years of the Vietnam War. Aside from that fact, this film pretty much deviates from reality from that point forward. If it happens in Good Morning, Vietnam, you be be pretty sure that it didn’t happen to the real Cronauer. This is really the story of what would have happened if you had somehow plunked Robin Williams back in 1965 Vietnam and set him to work for the military radio network.
That’s not to say it’s a bad movie. In fact, it’s the best movie on the pure comic side of William’s filmography, specifically because the role of this DJ perfectly matches the comedian’s unbridled improvisational humor.
The plot itself is pretty standard Hollywood fare, setting an irrepressible non-conformist against the forces of humorless order and letting the proverbial sparks fly. It was a big risky to use the Vietnam War as a backdrop for this kind of a comedy, since they ran the risk of either making light of the war or having the subject matter overwhelm the comedy. By concentrating on the action in the radio studio and stepping outside mostly to show how Cronauer’s comedy is a tonic for men living in the field, the film deftly walks this razor’s edge.
This is not a perfect movie, mostly because of a romantic subplot that has Cronauer teaching an English class in order to pursue a Vietnamese woman that does little but add running time. It also introduces us to her brother (Tung Thanh Tran), whose political loyalties do figure into the plot, but there must have been other, more economical ways of bringing him into the story.
The main thrust is the friction between Cronauer and those he works for, like Lt. Hauk (Bruno Kirby) and Sgt. Dickerson (J. T. Walsh), who have no patience for the deejay’s on-air anarchy. Their hands are tied by a general (Nobel Willingham) who is a fan of Cronauer’s from his days in Greece and understands his popularity with the troops. While the sergeant is genuinely humorless, Kirby gives a hilarious performance as a man who is alone in the world in thinking that he is funny. Cronauer is also aided and abetted in the studio by Pfc. Ed Garlick (Forest Whitaker in a breakout role) and Sgt. Marty Dreiwitz (Robert Wuhl).
The plot is pure fantasy because it’s unlikely that a real AFR deejay would get away with what Robin Williams does on the air and even less likely that someone in Cronauer’s position would actually be surprised that the military brass wouldn’t let him say anything he wants on the air. The film does have its insights into the nature of the war in Vietnam but they’re not particularly deep.
Thus, Good Morning, Vietnam works as a vehicle for Robin William and as a comedic clash between order and anarchy. If the other elements fall a bit short, it’s not enough to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of what there is to love about it.