Thursday, February 5, 2015

Good Morning, Vietnam & It’s a Wonderful World

I’ve watched this film three times, once when it came out, once some years ago on TV, and then again last night. It was, of course, built around its star, the late Robin Williams, who improvised his on-air DJ routines.

It would be interesting to compare this film with two earlier films, MASH (1970), set in Korea, but made immediately salient by the war in Vietnam, and Apocalypse, Now (1979). Like MASH, and unlike Apocalypse, Now, Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) is a comedy. While GMV is set mostly in Saigon and AN is mostly in the field, I can’t help but seeing some of shots in GMV through AN: the boat shots, helicopter shots, and some of the jungle shots, though the palate is a bit less saturated.

But this is not going to be a general commentary on the film. I want to mention one scene, a bit over two-thirds of the way through the film. Cronauer, the Robin Williams character, has just returned to the air by demand of the men in the field. He’d been taken off the air for insubordination and his replacement, a lieutenant who styled himself as a comedian, was a snoring disaster. So the good-guy commanding general demanded that he be reinstated. It took awhile to pull him out of his slump and get him back on air.

And when he did, the first song he played was It’s a Wonderful World, as recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1967. (I’ve got a post on a later version by the great Hawaiian musician, Israel Kamakawino’ole.) Armstrong is backed by strings, his voice is gentle, graceful, and ingratiating, and the sound is lush. As the song plays we see a montage. First the shorts are peaceful and pensive, but then they turn violent and bloody, continuing that way until the end. The effect, of course, is ironic, if lyrical as well (but then, AN was saturated in lyricism, wasn’t it?).

When that scene ends, with a close-up of Cronauer at the mike announcing the name of the song and the singer, we cut to a scene where his immediate superior–a by-the-book Sergeant Major with a mean streak (recall Col. Frank Burns from MASH)–sets him up for an ambush. The ambush fails, but the aftermath gets Cronauer removed from his post. The Sergent, too.

Back to the song. It had been recorded 20 years before this film came out. Armstrong himself had been dead for 15 years and so had pretty much disappeared from the scene, except for those of us who knew him as a jazz master. Good Morning, Vietnam put that recording back on the charts.

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