Williams was an actor who brought necessary lightness to any dramatic role he took on, and a dramatic depth to every comic role.
Looking back, many of the films that starred Robin Williams aren’t just films that starred Robin Williams; they feel like their own subgenre: Robin Williams films. This only happens with a few actors in every generation, just a handful throughout history: the ones whose talents are so unique and so profound that they define nearly every project to which they attach themselves. Williams was one of these — an actor who brought necessary lightness to any dramatic role he took on, and a dramatic depth to every comic role.
Good Morning Vietnam might have been the first real Robin Williams film — and what an introduction it was. The dynamism of Williams’ talents are all too present in Barry Levinson’s 1987 hit about radio DJ Adrian Cronauer (Williams), who meets with resistance from his military superiors when he attempts to publicly criticize the Vietnam War on his popular comedy radio show. Cronauer was Williams’ first big, memorable big-screen role, and he ran with it, even improvising some of his lines and radio broadcasts.
Williams had, of course, a distinct comedic style, but also an uncanny ability to communicate untold depths of emotion within any performance. This is one of the quintessential Williams films, and not just because it gives him license to unleash his full cabinet of comedic superpowers, from over-the-top voices and pantomimes to facial expressions and snappy one-liners. The movie also highlights the comfort that comedy brings to those in difficult straights — in this case, soldiers — as well as the serious pain and trauma that comedy helps us confront.
The broader political message of Good Morning, Vietnam is also crucial, particularly in the context of our current fraught political climate. The film shines its spotlight on an essential consideration of American politics that has always been present, but really exploded into the public forum with the ‘60s and Vietnam: the question of who controls information. It’s a question we’re very much struggling with now, rooted in ideas of communication, freedom of the press and the roles of comedy and entertainment when they clash against militaristic ideals.
The United States is a country that does not want to face itself: its racism, its imperialism, its corrupted power structures and the ways in which it has left a ruinous mark on so many countries and populations around the world throughout history. Good Morning, Vietnam hammers in this truth in one of its most iconic scenes, when Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran) confronts Cronauer about the harm that U.S. involvement has inflicted upon Vietnam. Even as we spend the film sympathizing with Cronauer, the film forces U.S. audiences to address the harm we caused in Vietnam and the dangers of the savior narrative that have so many times driven our governmental and military decisions.
A war comedy is tough to pull off, because it attempts to take a lighthearted approach to such heavy material. But traumatic situations are often the ones in which we most need comedy, and an illumination of the worth in creating connections with one another. Williams was more than the right man for the job, and the world is richer for it.