Barry Levinson can’t work out whether he’s Oliver Stone or Jerry Zucker in this Vietnam-based Robin Williams vehicle. Heavy handed politics and imagery of riots, fire and explosions doesn’t tend to gel with zany antics and improv riffing from one of the world’s leading fast-talking funnymen, but fortunately Williams is on fine enough form to just about rescue the material from an uneven mess, as his radio DJ Adrian Cronauer is brought in to perk up the on-air talent of 1965 Saigon. The troops love him, but his superiors, including the late, great Bruno Kirby’s put upon aggressive peon Lt. Steve, are less keen on his refusal to play approved material and pre-programmed songs, opting for rock and roll over Perry Como. Some storylines seem forced and contrived – Cronauer repeatedly infiltrating an English class just to meet a girl, her entire family accompanying them on a date – and you get the feeling that this is only loosely based on a true story.
Where it shines though is the comedy. Though some of the references are now very dated and probably worked a lot better back in the States (Ethel Merman, Walter Cronkite, Mr. Ed), Williams knack for voices and repartee with a crowd is unparalleled, though a young Forest Whittaker as station lackey Edward Garlick gets his share of decent lines too: “A man does not refer to Pat Boone as a beautiful genius if things are alright.”
The film tries too hard to make a political statement where none is wanted, and the failed attempts at poignancy leave a bad taste in the mouth. Had the serious side been toned down – difficult, I know, given that it’s about war – and the directionless plot been reined in a little this could have been a classic.
Choose life 6/10