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Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

cronauer dickerson censorship taylor

Principal social theme: censorship

Touchstone. R rating. Featuring: Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby, Robert Wuhl, Noble Willingham, J. T. Walsh, Richard Edson, Juney Smith, Tung Thanh Tran, Chintara Sukapatana, Richard Portnow, Floyd Vivino, Dan Stanton, Don Stanton, Cu Ba Nguyen. Written by Mitch Markowitz. Cinematography by Peter Sova. Edited by Stu Linder. Music by Alex North. Produced by Mark Johnson and Larry Brezner. Directed by Barry Levinson. Color. 121 minutes.


Good Morning, Vietnam was comedian Robin Williams’s breakthrough film that transformed him into a major star. Loosely based on the true-life experiences of Adrian Cronauer as a broadcaster for Armed Forces radio during the Vietnam War, the film not only portrays Cronauer’s battle with the military censors, but also shows the deadly consequences when censorship is applied in an arbitrary fashion.


Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams), a member of the Air Forces, is a talented radio disk jockey. In 1965, General Taylor overhears one of Cronauer’s shows over Armed Forces radio in the island of Crete, and he requests his transfer to his command in Vietnam. Sergeant Major Dickerson (J. T. Walsh), nominal head of the operation of the radio station, is upset that this new man is assigned as a DJ without his consent, but Taylor insists that Cronauer is hilarious and will be great for morale. The general personally greets Cronauer when he arrives at the station, but Dickerson treats him with disdain. He is ordered to report the news only after it has been edited by the censors. Cronauer is puzzled by this since these news items are already public knowledge, having been issued by the news wire services. As he begins his first broadcast shift at 6 A.M. , Cronauer makes a dramatically different impression, shouting, “Good morning, Vietnam!” and doing a wild, fast-paced monologue including impressions of a wide range of voices from Elvis Presley and Rod Serling to characters from The Wizard of Oz . He also plays rock and soul music. Lieutenant Hauk, his immediate supervisor, is outraged, upset by Cronauer’s irreverent and satirical tone as well as his musical selections. He tells him to only program old standards by performers such as Lawrence Welk, Perry Como, and Percy Faith. Cronauer is an immediate hit, however, with listeners as well as the other broadcasters. Private Garlick, the station’s clerk, takes the new DJ to Jimmy Wahs, a Saigon bar and hangout favored by GIs. Cronauer spots Trinh, a beautiful Vietnamese girl passing by the bar and follows her to a classroom where the military provides English language lessons. Cronauer volunteers as a teacher and takes over instruction of the class. The girl remains aloof, but Cronauer makes friends with Tuan, her younger brother, who is in the class. When he brings Tuan to Wahs’ bar, a few roughneck soldiers object, and Cronauer gets into a fight for his new friend’s rights.

Cronauer continues to gain in popularity as the leading DJ, and he continues his own freewheeling style despite Hauk’s continued badgering. Dickerson and Hauk appeal to Taylor to take Cronauer off the air, but the general dismisses their complaints, saying the DJ gives a real lift to the men in the field who listen to him. After leaving the general’s office, Dickerson tells Hauk he will find a way to get rid of the popular announcer. While Cronauer is relaxing at Wahs’ bar, Tuan shows up and tells him that his sister has agreed to meet him. Just as they leave, a bomb explodes in the bar, killing and wounding a number of men. Cronauer is stunned, and when his next radio shift starts, he talks about the blast even though the censors have not cleared the story. Dickerson cuts him off the air. Taylor reluctantly agrees to suspend the announcer, and Dickerson appoints Hauk to fill the slot. He is a complete disaster on the air, however, and soon phone calls and letters start to pour in from soldiers demanding that Cronauer’s show be brought back. Within a short time, Taylor orders his reinstatement. When Private Garlick informs Cronauer about this, the DJ remains discouraged, tired by his battles with the censors. Garlick introduces the announcer to a number of soldiers en route to various bases, and they respond so vigorously to Cronauer that he is filled with a new resolve when he returns to the airways. Later, he gets the idea to visit An-loc and tape a group of interviews with soldiers in the field. When Dickerson learns that route IA, the road to An-loc, has fallen under enemy control, he urges Hauk to approve the trip. Garlick and Cronauer take a jeep to make their journey. They continue to listen to the radio, but the censors eliminate the news that their road is unsafe. They fall under Vietcong attack, and their jeep is destroyed. They try to reach safety on foot. To their surprise, Tuan shows up with a car to rescue them, but it breaks down. Fortunately, a helicopter shows up and flies them to safety. When Dickerson hears of the escape, he discovers that Tuan is suspected of being a member of the Vietcong by the South Vietnamese police. He threatens Cronauer to resign or he will expose his friendship with Tuan to the authorities. General Taylor tells Cronauer that he is unable to intervene. After the DJ leaves the station, Taylor berates Dickerson and orders him transferred to a backwater post in Guam. Cronauer seeks out Tuan and learns that his friend was behind the bombing of Wahs’ bar, but he risked his life to make sure Cronauer was safe. The DJ is confused and troubled by this revelation. He says farewell to the members of his class for new English speakers and stages an impromptu softball game for them. Trinh also shows up to see him one last time, voicing her regrets that her culture would not allow them to become friends. As he boards his flight home, Cronauer gives Garlick a tape to play over the air, a final show saying goodbye to his audience in his usual freewheeling style.


Good Morning, Vietnam proved to be a very popular film and one that deals with the issue of censorship in a special way. It clearly recognizes the need for secrecy in terms of security and military necessity. At the same time, if this censorship becomes arbitrary, it can prove to be dangerous. By deleting the radio news that Route IA was unsafe, the censors put at risk the lives of any military personnel traveling on the road who would have benefited from the report. The censorship had gotten out of hand, mindlessly blanking out all information that the war was even in progress. Viewers can analyze how the treatment of censorship in the film can apply to the issue on a wider scale, as well as the demarcation line between the necessary and the capricious use of censorship. To Dickerson, the control of the programs had to be complete, premeasured for content in both terms of music and information. In contrast, General Taylor saw the station as just radio, a morale booster to give the troops a lift while they are undergoing their hazardous duty. He enjoyed Cronauer’s irreverence, saw his humor and musical tastes as a safety valve for the pressure cooker of the military involved in guerrilla warfare. Cronauer himself is an innocent as the film opens, but he is changed by the carnage he witnesses after the bombing. His encounter with the soldiers brings him a greater maturity. He is finally stunned that the friend he fought for to be allowed to enter Wahs’ bar would use the opening to plant a bomb. His instincts about censorship, however, are proven sound, and as the film ends, the other DJs at the station have started to follow his lead, in both their on-air banter and musical selections. Incidentally, the real-life Cronauer was far less a performing dynamo than the character as portrayed by Robin Williams, whose rapid-fire monologues included a large portion of improvisation. The actor even admitted a few of his wilder ad-libs were quite reasonably censored by the film’s editor. Years later, Williams became a regular on USO tours, even reprising some of his routines from Good Morning, Vietnam for the troops in Iraq.

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