Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Good Morning Vietnam

"My god, their quick, their fast, and small.
I feel like a fox in a chicken coop."
-Adrian Cronauer crossing politically correct boundaries (by today's standards) concerning Vietnamese women looking alike and suggesting every one he sees is the same exact woman-

Those seeking to lighten the weight of their war dramas would do well to seek out Good Morning Vietnam (1987), as light as material can be about the Vietnam War (1955-1975). The film's story takes place in 1965 Saigon, ten years before the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese.

Time Magazine called it the best military comedy since M*A*S*H. Nevertheless the Barry Levinson Classic has more going for it than the stand-up infusion of actor Robin Williams' Adrian Cronauer, a character based on the real life Adrian Cronauer, the Vietnam deejay and inspiration for the film.

In fact, Good Morning Vietnam (GMV) displays the versatility of Williams to modulate irreverent comedy and drama on a dime and seamlessly weave it to great dramatic effect. This writer was never a big fan of M*A*S*H (1972-1983; 11 seasons; 256 episodes). It may be even a bit sacrilegious to breath those words, but it was a bit before my time and lost on this young soul. That would be a series that would more likely earn my appreciation today. The Vietnam-stationed China Beach (1988-1991; 4 seasons; 62 episodes) is another TV series that requires a closer look one day.

Regardless, at one time, like M*A*S*H, it seemed Levinson's GMV was seen by just about every American. It wasn't missed. A 13 million budget turned into a 123 million dollar windfall. Now some thirty years later there is a generation of Americans maybe more than one who simply have not experienced the film.

Vietnam has been dissected and analyzed by a whole host of perspectives for film and television. It's arguably one of the most popular war periods covered in film and television. Heck some of gene Roddenberry's Star Trek (1966-1969) drew narrative from the Vietnam war. The controversial war landscape delivered one of Americas toughest periods on the international stage.

GMV lightens the tone coming at the war and the region from the angle of a military deejay hell-bent on doing his best to entertain the troops at the cost of breaking from protocol and landing himself at odds with a number of his superiors. Through Adrian, too, we see an American attempting to make a connection in a foreign land with a Vietnamese national. That effort at a human connection draws him into a culture he doesn't fully understand but attempts to bridge.

Shots of the Vietnam war action are relegated to external shots of American military maneuvers to the sweet sounds of James Brown, The Searchers, Louis Armstrong, The Beach Boys and others even a good polka.

Violence is relegated to a minimum in the film but when it strikes it has a profound impact and is explosive.

Levinson's input should not be understated. Levinson's visuals approach the war as a profound alternative to the likes of the much darker and more severe Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). That's not to suggest GMV doesn't take the war seriously, but the film is from the perspective of someone on the periphery with a different world view.

Levinson's visual approach is highlighted by a sequence set to Louis Armstrong's What A Wonderful World (actually a 1967 release) with scenes collected like a Vietnam music video.

Following the first hour of politically caustic humor and Williams' intoxicating and crazed comedian unleashed, the second hour of the film finds Adrian disillusioned with protocol upon falling victim to a near death experience. Escaping a bombing at a popular GI spot in Saigon Cronauer is shaken by the war. His effervescent, cheerful and comedic disposition is tempered with an emotional change upon his personal interaction with the war outside the safe confines of his radio station walls. Like a conscientious objector, Adrian does his part to lift the troops, but is truly rocked by the war in the second half of  the film. Levinson quickly reminds the audience and his protagonist, this is indeed a war.

Truth be told the second hour sees Williams let down his guard as Cronauer. Instead of mere comic stand up the façade is lifted and the character begins to break down and exhibit real humanity. Williams shines for it. But as viewers we recognize the personal defenses we ourselves use.

One sequence where Williams performs stand up with the young American soldiers is particularly poignant as Williams' humor melts away and into concern as he wishes them well and to take care knowing many of them could conceivably die on the battlefield. It is a striking sequence as truck after truck of kids drive by and Adrian smiles and waves to them out of concern. The juxtaposition to the first hour is sobering.

In fact, when Adrian softens his comedy to connect with the Vietnamese there is a tenderness allowed into the film. There is a humanity infused into Adrian's character. Scenes like this display the versatility and greatness of Williams as more than a comedian but as a great actor who would shine in films like Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society (1989), Penny Marshall's Awakenings (1990) and Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King (1991).

The film also shines by surrounding Williams with an assortment of interesting military personnel, radio personalities and Vietnamese---a group of real characters that elevate the picture beyond being a mere Williams' vehicle though it is that too. These many faces, the Vietnamese too, draw out Cronauer's humanity.

By film's end Cronauer has changed. War and the events surrounding him have altered his perception of the world as a mere stage. The walls come down and Williams's character becomes entirely more human. That transformation is what makes Good Morning Vietnam so special and so relatable moving the film beyond mere comedy.

One could argue Cronauer's actions in the final minutes could qualify as treasonous or simply lend themselves arguably to the decisions of a naïve radio deejay who allowed his concern for humanity to overrule code and conduct of the American military. These final minutes seemed more notably questionable to me today than they seemed once viewed as a naïve teenager. Levinson opens the door to such worldly contemplations. While there is indeed an irreverent tone toward the US Military (what do you expect from Hollywood?), the film succeeds in its treatment of people and its portrayal of Cronauer as a big hearted humanist open to the world teaching English and playing baseball with the locals. Levinson and Williams shoot for the human face of war, where the toll was great to both Americans and Vietnamese, asking questions without creating a definitively anti-American film.

Good Morning Vietnam offers us one of the great dichotomies within war--- the horror and the humanity. GMV leans us to that big bright picture window called humanity.

Good Morning Vietnam.
Writer: Mitch Markowitz/ Stu Silver.
Director: Barry Levinson (Rain Man).

The War: Vietnam (though the film title probably gave that away) (1955-1975).

What Critics Had To Say:

Rotten Tomatoes ranked Good Morning Vietnam at 89% tomato.

Roger Ebert gave the film 4 (of 4) stars. "Robin Williams has always kept a certain wall between himself and his audience. But who is inside? With Williams, the wall remains impenetrable. Like Groucho Marx, he uses comedy as a strategy for personal concealment. War wipes the grin off his face." "If it were only a more consistent, less indulgent comedy, drama or dramedy. It's a bit all over the map."

The War Film Blog: Highly Recommended.

Notable Dialogue:

What Drew Me To The Film:
One of the biggest losses in recent memory out of Hollywood was likely Robin Williams (1951-2014) for this writer. Having recently viewed One Hour Photo (2002) I was reminded of the actor's versatility beyond mere comedian. While the aforementioned film directed by Mark Romanek offered a solid performance by Williams it certainly didn't rank among his best. But when Williams delivers what I would term sensitive performances that's when Williams was at his best.

Having experienced two coming home films in Brothers (2009) and The Messenger (2009) this wordsmith was looking to de-escalate the difficult subject matter. Who better to turn to than Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam? Exactly.

Good Morning Vietnam is simply one of those classic films that gives me no trouble to revisit.

As a young man this film was huge in theatres where I first experienced it.

In fact it seemed everyone owned the soundtrack too. This writer had the cassette and took great pleasure in seeing the creators weave Williams stand up routine and dialogue in between classics of the era that seemingly defined and played synonymous with the war. Classic soundtracks like this one were quite popular at the time of their counterpart's cinematic arrival next to popular music of the day. But who didn't love having Robin Williams burst forth from their car speakers or boom boxes back in 1987?

So Good Morning Vietnam has always been a favorite film of mine. Williams had already established himself a national sensation following four seasons (91 episodes) of Mork And Mindy (1978-1982). And while I was there at cinemas for Robert Altman's colorful Popeye (1980) and enjoyed, although underappreciated, George Roy Hill's The World According To Garp (1982), it was Good Morning Vietnam that sold me on Williams as an actor I would continue to cherish.

Following his war film, a film that worked inside the wheelhouse of popular cinema on the Vietnam era, it seemed Williams went on an unstoppable run of great cinema with a remarkable string of career defining works. Dead Poets Society (1989), Awakenings (1990), The Fisher King (1992) and Vincent Ward's What Dreams May Come (1998) remain absolute treasures in my collection and likely rank among my top five favorite Williams' films.

Speaking of other characters in the film the late Bruno Kirby (Birdy), the late J.T. Walsh (Breakdown) and Forest Whitaker (The Crying Game) are among those who steal screen time with their equally strong supporting roles.

Seeing the film again today through more sensitive eyes I sometimes wonder if the humor written for the film was offensive to veterans of the war or was it considered mostly tame? At the time of the films release this writer was hardly in step with the politics of the film and television industry. We certainly know where the politics of Hollywood stand resolutely today.

Good Morning Vietnam is a terrific character study of a man working his little corner of the military but inspiring and affecting so many.

Williams is perfect as a human being who in effect uses humor as an armor or a shield to mask so much. It speaks to so many of us. But so much of who Williams really was as an individual was in that performance and seemed like a spotlight to his soul.

Good Morning Vietnam is a powerful picture for both Williams and Levinson at the height of their powers. The film expertly explores the delicate balance of human relations between the Vietnamese and their occupiers masked in humor but placing a human face on the war.

In fact, Good Morning Vietnam is just one of the many reasons this blog was ultimately devised. There was a strong desire by this writer to return to many of the war films he loved over the past four decades.

There are so many amazing films employing the Vietnam War as its subject or backdrop of study. It's very hard to pick a favorite.

The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Birdy (1985), Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Born On The Fourth Of July (1989), Casualties Of War (1989), Jacob's Ladder (1990), We Were Soldiers (2002) and Rescue Dawn (2007) are among those I'd like to cover here.

Good Morning Vietnam may not be the best of the bunch but it easily ranks among my personal favorites when it comes to the genre.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Messenger

"No such thing as a satisfied customer."
-Captain Tony Stone-

Don't shoot the messenger is normally an amusing defensive expression. Here that adage is hardly befitting of Israel-born director Oren Moverman's, less-than-amusing film debut, The Messenger (2009). Even writing about it seems a delicate matter.

The post-war story by Moverman arrived just weeks before director Jim Sheridan's equally stirring psychological examination Brothers (2009) that same year here. The two films could serve as a double bill if one could stomach the difficult material back to back.

Brothers may be the darker film, though not without hope, but both are tough watches. Both films are dramatically exceptional and unique in their narratives sharing little in common other than the salient psychological effects, realities and trauma families suffer following the effects of war. This is not feel good material.

The film centers on a Casualty Notification team played by Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster as messengers Captain Tony Scott and Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery respectively. The two soldiers are tasked with one of the hardest missions a solider faces---informing a family of the loss of a loved one. The reactions to their message are always varied and often unique.

One of the two messengers, Montgomery, takes an interest in a woman, played by the always credible Samantha Morton. This is a messenger desperate for a human connection following his time served in Iraq.

The Messenger, by all accounts, may have its detractors regarding the realism with which it is portrayed, but as a dramatic enterprise it is gripping and offers a window into the world of our American soldiers.

As men in charge of casualty notifications Stone makes efforts to disconnect emotionally from contact with next of kin and stay on or hold to script. Montgomery is not the same man and seeks to make a connection and potentially feel love. Whatever the protocol there is a stubborn thing called human behavior that plays a part in that equation.

The disconnect emotionally is also significant in analyzing its messengers, two men who have buried themselves with all manner of walls and barriers following the scarring of war. The film examines their own walled up emotional disconnect and, in their own way, their efforts to climb back into an emotional connection with home through each other.

It speaks volumes when Montgomery tells Stone they should ask someone for directions.

"No. First of all men don't ask for directions much less soldiers. Soldiers on a notification definitely positively do not ask for freaking directions. No GPS. No mapquest. We navigate." Spoken like a true man.

This dialogue selection speaks volumes about the expectation of soldiers and men to wear a brave face. When Stone explains to Montgomery to remain detached for their mission. No contact. No expression of feeling. It speaks volumes about how far the soldier buries emotion and to some extent their own personal humanity to perform their mission, be professional and to ultimately protect civilians from seeing that which the soldier "cannot unsee."

Soldiers are tasked with visiting families and each meeting results in varied responses and unexpected reactions to such truly devastating news concerning the loss of loved ones. The Messenger, protocols and procedures aside, bears out one truth. Human behavior is entirely unpredictable.

Another truth the film keeps in mind is that the United States Military is a dynamic, complex and multi-cultural entity comprised of a nation of peoples serving one country and one mission.

Each new family, home or residence visited reminded this writer just how different we are as Americans, sometimes wildly so, yet despite these varied, different backgrounds of creed and color men and women serve side by side for one nation, like law enforcement. They work together, live together, dine together, fight shoulder to shoulder and live and die together. These mutual goals bind us and our varied backgrounds bonding us to serve one country. At least that should be the intention. The mission by all as a collective is to protect our individual freedoms and our rights to express ourselves, no matter how deplorable or reprehensible our personal views may see those expressions, and ironically, even how divisive some of those expressions of free will might well be. We protect them through a collection of individuals.

The Messenger should at least remind us of what binds us as a nation and how it should work. The United States Military is also a symbol of our nation as a melting pot and presents a positive depiction of the best of us and how we can be. At present we are terribly divided as a people but the military deserves our support. Today technology and communication have seemingly blinded us to basic forms of human expression that should permit for different views, but often we are satisfied with a simple keyboard-driven quip to deliver the a message of invective. The Messenger reminds us we could all use a bit more conversation in our message.

The Messenger also speaks to the fact your culture, creed, race or sex should have little to do with your loyalty to country. The problem is when these things come before your loyalty to nation and each other.

The Messenger may be a factually imperfect film. I don't know. How much of that is the result of Israel born director Moverman and his Italian-born co-writer is unknown, though so much of it feels right. This sense of authentic presence may resonate from the fact Moverman was an Israeli combat veteran himself. Some of the dialogue is mesmerizing. Some may take considerable issue with the film's portrayal of such a difficult job at least in terms of technique, but it is no less universally wrought with hardship.

Yet for every one who might take issue there are others. The sleeve notes to the film itself share a beautiful tribute to the American soldier and what has been committed to film here. Author Anthony Swofford who penned Jarhead (2003), adapted to film in 2005, was also a US Marine and the veteran penned an essay All The Rules Are Gone for this film speaking to what amounts to the unorthodox and unanticipated nature of each and every casualty notification. As Swofford notes The Messenger represents the inescapable "domestic side of warfare." Swofford wrote, "American men and women are risking their lives each day." Right or wrong, the message is profoundly moving and The Messenger is "a tribute to these service people and a memory marker for the citizens of the country that has asked them to risk so much." What The Messenger effectively does is ask viewers to not forget those that might be forgotten.

The Messenger, like Brothers, is a thoroughly engaging and human picture that addresses head on the fragility of life for soldiers and families in war's wake. The message may not be perfect, but there is much here to take away concerning this aspect of the military life. At the very least, unlike some war films that tackle casualty notifications in a cursory fashion, The Messenger tackles it head on, right or wrong, lensing some disturbingly uncomfortable moments along the way.

The Messenger.
Writer: Alessandro Camon/ Oren Moverman. Director: Oren Moverman.

The War: Iraq (2003-present).

What critics had to say:

Rotten Tomatoes ranked The Messenger at 89% tomato.

Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 (of 4) stars. "Maybe the only way to do it is by the book. This one looks at the faces of war. Only a few, but they represent so many." "2009 ushered in a new focus on the crippling nature of modern warfare, and the scars it can leave on the men and woman that serve their country. The Messenger deserves recognition as one of the greatest films of 2009."

The War Film Blog: Recommended.

Notable dialogue:

"Learn the script. Stick to the script. Can you do that? ... Never say stuff like lost or expired or passed away. Things people misunderstand. I knew this guy who once told this old lady that her grandson was no longer with us. She thought he had defected to the enemy started calling him a traitor. We need to be clear. Need to say killed or died. ... We call each casualty by name. We honor them. You do not speak with anybody other than the next-of-kin. ... You do not touch the N-O-K. Avoid physical contact with the next-of-kin, unless it's a medical emergency, like they're having a heart attack or something. You're representing the Secretary of the Army, not Will Montgomery, so in case you feel like offering a hug or something...don't. ... These are the rules." (Captain Tony Stone)

What drew me to the film:

There was first and foremost an interest in The Messenger's depiction of an aspect of the military often given little coverage. This writer expected some real dramatic power in such a revelation. Some would argue looking at the HBO film Taking Chance (2009), starring Kevin Bacon, a film that was also released early in 2009 offers an important angle and window into this world that The Messenger misses.

It's pretty clear 2009 was a big year for the war genre, a year that included Academy Award Winner The Hurt Locker (2009). In fact, its release may have overshadowed the success of many of these other films worthy of attention.

Nevertheless The Messenger and Brothers were films that tackled the aftermath of war and coming home. There have been other powerful films that have tackled these aspects of the soldier, family and friendship including Hal Ashby's Coming Home (1978), Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) and Oliver Stone's Born On The Fourth of July (1989).

The cast of The Messenger had my attention too.

Ben Foster has always impressed me. Hostage (2005), 3:10 To Yuma (2007), Pandorum (2009) and Peter Berg's war film Lone Survivor (2013) have all been uniformly excellent.

But once again, Woody Harrelson owns the screen here following on from an endless string of classics. His performance in HBO's True Detective (2014) will always impress beyond words, but his work as a performer continues to elevate material.

Actress Jena Malone is a bonus and nearly unrecognizable here.

And finally my odd obsession with all things Samantha Morton continues. She completely immersed herself in a credible role here gaining considerable weight for the part since her far more sensual performance in Code 46 (2003) and her memorable turn in Enduring Love (2004) and In America (2003), also directed by Jim Sheridan (Brothers). Here she fits the bill for a rather ordinary military spouse to perfection. Though good, Morton takes a backseat to the two strong male leads here.

The Messenger Blu-Ray was also given a loving digipack presentation that will surely please every genre or film collector.

Any substantive procedural missteps The Messenger may make in delivery is surely more than compensated for by many of the resonating human interest-based reasons already discussed. This is an impeccably performed war drama handling a very delicate area unfortunately experience by far too many American families.

In the end this writer enjoyed, or more appropriately appreciated the film's message. Like Brothers, after war, this is an engagement of a different kind and just as challenging to our humanity. Of course, please, by all means disagree here, because remember, for this blog, I'm but one mere messenger.