25 years ago, Robin Williams was already a household name and television star, but at the time, while I was sitting in the theatre watching this box office hit unspool, I knew Williams had arrived as a full-blown movie star. 25 year later, watching the Blu-ray over the weekend, nothing has changed. The highly fictionalized story of story of Adrian Cronauer, an Air Force disc jockey in Vietnam between 1965-1966, is still just as entertaining, hilarious and clever.
Because director Barry Levinson handles the story’s political undertones with such a deft touch, none of the humor or plot points feel in any way heavy-handed or anti-military. In fact, like Robert Altman’s brilliant “M*A*S*H,” the war and the military feel more like devices used to explore a much larger and more universal theme about individuality and thumbing your nose at authority. And that, my friends, is good stuff.
“Good Morning, Vietnam” is also an opportunity to spend some time with two exceptional character actors no longer with us: Bruno Kirby and as Cronauer’s primary foil, The Mighty J.T. Walsh. Williams deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for his work, and I think he’d be one of the first to admit that the greatness surrounding him helped to make him great.
This is still one of the best films Williams has ever done, and never let yourself or anyone forget that the real Cronauer is a lifelong Republican who openly supported George W. Bush in 2004.
Everything about director Peter Weir’s handling of an Oscar-winning script written by Tom Schulman about his own personal experiences at a fancy preparatory school for boys is letter perfect. The production design feels like 1959, the young cast is believable in their roles as repressed, wealthy Caucasians who are really artists and poets looking for the opportunity to shine, and as the teacher who inspires them with poetry to “seize the day,” Robin Williams is all warmth and humor.
The plot is a simple one. John Keating (Williams) is the new English teacher at Welton Academy, a respected prep school steeped in oak-paneled tradition and determined to teach its young men “honor, discipline, and excellence.” Keating (a former student) will have none of it, though, and immediately abuses his position to teach his students to be reckless and, worst of all, insufferably self-indulgent.
As a response, the boys begin to break school rules, defy their parents, and devolve into pretentious, narcissistic bohemians who put a higher value on their own destructive self-actualization than anything else – including their own futures. The young man most affected by all of this is Neil (Robert Sean Leonard), who comes from a loving home with a stern father, a self-made man who’s worked his butt off to give his son the opportunities he never had.
Thanks to Keating’s irresponsible nonsense, Neil lies to his father and accepts a part in a local community play. After he’s caught, Neil’s father decides to ship the defiant boy off to military school. With his head filled with Keating’s nonsense about “seizing the day” and how an unfulfilled life isn’t worth living, Neil blows his brains out in his father’s study.
In the end Keating gets fired, but the closing scene makes clear that the terrible influence this awful teacher had on his students is, tragically, a permanent one.
Obviously, the filmmakers and the film’s one-sided point of view don’t see these events in quite the same way I do. In fact, the story portrays Keating’s influence as a good thing, portrays narcissism as a virtue.
Which is why I hate “Dead Poets Society.”