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On the Surface, It's Calm. Below, it's Deadly
by Jon Schuller

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America's role in the world has been sometimes confusing, causing upheavals and tragedies. Whether it's on an individual person-to-person basis or in a full-scale war, our country's history - especially in modern times - is filled with mistakes and triumphs. I won't go into the details here as that isn't my purpose today. I simply want to use a famous film as an example of the bipolar nature of what we've done past and present. On December 23, 1987 a movie premiered that took the early days of our involvement in Vietnam and personalized it in the form of a popular U.S. Air Force Airman Second Class, named Adrian Cronauer, who's been transferred from Crete to an Armed Forces Radio Service station in Saigon in 1965. The film starred Robin Williams and featured Forest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby, Robert Wuhl, J.T. Walsh, Noble Willingham, Richard Portnow and Newark, N.J.'s very own Floyd Vivino. It was filmed in Thailand and directed by Barry Levinson.

Cronauer lands at the airport in Saigon, seeing the hundreds of troops and their equipment being unloaded there, as America's role in Southeast Asia is growing rapidly every week. He's met by PFC Edward Garlick (Whitaker) who's heard about Cronauer's irreverent
radio style and rapid-fire sense of humor. They - especially Cronauer - will come into conflict with the straight-laced Second Lieutenant Steven Hauk (Kirby) and Sergeant Major Phillip Dickerson (Walsh), who already run the station. They, in turn, are commanded by Brigadier General Taylor (Willingham) who's a big fan of Cronauer and likes the fact that he can make the troops laugh for a while amidst the rapidly growing conflicts and danger.

As Cronauer and Garlick drive through the busy Saigon streets, the DJ sees a beautiful Vietnamese girl, Trinh, and suddenly decides he wants to meet her. They follow her to a class of natives being taught English by a soldier. Cronauer bribes the teacher and he takes over the class. The entire scene is ad-libbed by the amazing Williams as he meets Trinh and her young, protective brother, Tuan, who says he doesn't like Americans in his country. Cronauer takes the boy to a popular G.I. bar where some soldiers take exception to Tuan being there. A fight follows and Cronauer is in trouble. Dickerson resents Cronauer's style and warns him that he'll see that the irreverent airman is disciplined or kicked out completely. J.T. Walsh usually played the part of The Man We
Love to Hate.


Tuan finds Cronauer drinking in the G.I.'s favorite spot called Jimmy Wah's and then excitedly tells him that his sister, Trinh, wants to see him immediately and this will be his only chance. He practically pulls Adrian out of the bar as a large explosion rocks the building and everything outside only minutes later. There is chaos everywhere; two soldiers are killed and many others wounded. Cronauer is quite shaken by what's happened, making him pause to think about what's really going all around him but isn't easily seen. He's determined to report the incident on the air but he isn't allowed to tell the truth. Sergeant Major Dickerson stops the broadcast and immediately suspends Cronauer from the air. He is replaced by the stiff and humorless Lieutenant Hauk.

The general intercedes on Adrian's behalf, but Cronauer doesn't want to return to work. Dickerson sends him out into the countryside with Garlick as his driver, knowing that where they're going has been infested with VC terrorists. The pair runs into several large troop carriers at a congested intersection and Adrian is recognized by the soldiers. They're being sent into battle and Adrian holds an impromptu interview session
with them. He slowly realizes many of these young men may not come back. He's again struck by the two-sided nature of what he does versus what he sees. Garlick and Cronauer's jeep is blown up in the jungle and somehow Truan finds them as they're rescued by an Army helicopter.

Truan is revealed as a VC agent and Cronauer is ordered to leave the base. Even General Taylor can't save him. The General then tells Dickerson he's being transferred to Guam because of what he did to Adrian and his overall vindictive, nasty attitude. Cronauer is brought to the airport and eventually Garlick takes his place on the radio.

This is one of finest war films ever made as it explores the dual nature of war and its effects on people. Robin Williams' incredible talents were brought forth magnificently for this picture. He received three different awards for Best Actor. The film got honored by the AFI and its 100 lists.

But it was Robin Williams who brought the character to life, constantly transitioning back and forth from funny to thoughtful to sad. His comedic gift for improvisation was on full display here as Director Barry Levinson gave him free rein to do it as he felt it. It's a modern classic with a timeless message.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.


Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

When Is It Leaving? Where Is It Going?

I'd Forgotten About That Completely

He's a Spy? Yeah. Right.

May I Quote You On That?

A Penultimate Year For Movies

All Columns


Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 29 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).



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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.


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