When thinking about the best way to write at length about the terrible passing of Robin Williams, I was initially going to talk about “battling demons”, or “wanting the pain to stop” or some other construct. But those word choices imply choice, let alone notions that he performed a “selfish act” or “did not want to fight”. He had depression – which many wrongly interchangably substitute with Williams being depressed. I was depressed when my house was empty when the life partner and peanut were at the in-laws. Depression is a medical condition, with a medical diagnosis and a medical course of treatment. Robin Williams was sick – as sick as anyone who suffers from cancer, anemia, what have you – with a disease that robs someone of the ability to want to fight to live. The comedian Rob Delaney wrote about this eloquently, and what you see is that suicide was not a choice at all – it is an nth degree symptom playing itself out. I certainly cannot be inside Williams’ head, but I have read a lot of cases where the deceased thought he was HELPING his loved ones by eliminating the problem, and the deceased did not get enough help because he was not worthy of the consideration. As a parent of a future adolescent – I am sensitive to this distinction, because making this about free will and “cowardice” is what prevents people from seeking help. It’s a crucial message to deliver about any mental disease.
Robin Williams was the most dazzling of talk show guests, and the most effervescent of stand-up comics. While there are things which prevented him from achieving “greatest ever” sorts of status in my mind – principally the lack of universal human themes – nobody has ever had the ability to fire jokes and riff like he had. He was one of the least influential comedians of all time, simply because nobody is physically able to do what he did. His ability to weave in and out of characters, the lightning quick combination of joke-punchline-free association which characterized his comedy was truly one of a kind.
Of course, film producers saw this phenomenon and tried to port it onto screen, and for the most part it failed. You look at his film career, and what is notable is how generally bad the comedies that relied on his TV Robin Williams-ness were. Really the only good one was Aladdin, and it made sense that only animation could capture his energy sufficiently. His best comedic works, in places like The Birdcage or Moscow on the Hudson, involved him more or less playing a character straight. By contrast, his dramatic performances were almost always good ones – even in a network procedural. Much was made of his heel turns in One Hour Photo or Insomnia, but in reality he had been this good a dramatic actor the whole time.
Filmmakers too often seemed to look at the two sides of Williams’ skillset at separate disciplines. Only Barry Levinson found a vehicle which touched the entirety of Robin Williams could do. Good Morning, Vietnam in 1988, was certainly sold as a comedy, and was a very funny movie (we’ll get to this later) but in subsequent viewings as I got older and thinking about it for this essay, it does not get the honor it warrants for being one of the better American war films. It is not a comedy so much as it is about a comedian, and that is a crucial difference.
Now, when the movie begins, it sure feels like a comedy. Robin Williams’ character, Adrian Cronaeur has just landed after an assignment in Crete, and he is being driven to base to start his work on Armed Forces Radio to supply entertainment to the troops. He is a fast talking, wise-cracker – just what audiences hoped for. His driver and helper, Eddie Garlick (Forrest Whitaker) introduces himself, and Cronauer noted “first thing is to request you a new name”. We get the usual stiff unhip careerists Croneaur reports to, Houk (the late Bruno Kirby) and Dickerson (the late JT Walsh – wow Whitaker must feel weird now) – and we get the framework we expect of the military careerists who have internalized the details of the mission and the rah rah messages and such against the iconoclastic Williams. Right now, the movie has set itself up like MASH or Stripes. Soon thereafter, when we get to see Cronauer at work – riffing on politicians and playing unapproved music (like James Brown) – this sort of comedic construct is further developed.
But then, the movie starts to deal in the rhythms of life in wartime. We don’t see a gun fired – but we see the life. Levinson shows us the restaurant where the guys hang out after the show, complete with eccentric Vietnamese owner. We see the Vietnamese, including a girl Cronauer gets smitten with and takes over an English speaking class to try to meet. Of course he is trying to use his comedy to rope her in (at Williams usual speed) but for obvious reasons this is lost on her, although her brother and Cronauer start to hit it off. But the war remains in the background especially after a bomb hits the restaurant and when Cronauer ends up stuck in the middle of VietCong territory. What is interesting this whole way – is that while on one level you have the standard “piss off the bosses” comedy of his show and his superiors, Cronauer is really the only “funny” person in the entire movie. The rest of his colleagues, the folks on the air, the soliders, the Vietnamese he teaches – are all played and written straight. Cronauer’s hitting on the girl does not seem funny, just awkward.
What Williams and Levinson have done at this point is introduce us to a character who is a bright, funny professional comic – but somebody who has not had to really face what war really was – or for that matter how important his function really is. But over the course of the movie it starts to dawn on him. As much as it is for the military careerists he hates, the war was an abstraction for him – material for a radio program. However, he starts to learn what it really is – what the soldiers who are actually fighting have to deal with and face, and the simple truth that soldier heroism is not coming from some mythologizing fetish, but just from having a really really difficult job. The key scene is midway through as Cronauer meets a van of soldiers who are fans of his show. He gets to meet them, gets to do some bits and is able to connect, to see why his gig on the radio matters to much. It’s his little contribution with the chops he DOES have. After this moment, Cronauer’s own sense of the somberness of the mission and the reality on the ground is changes. This is a dramatic shift, and when the screenplay calls for the anger, the sense of betrayal and finally the defeat – Williams is more than equal to it.
Cronauer is defeated at the end, but his humanity has grown, and he is a better person. Like Altman’s MASH, that is the triumph here and the useful, though not revelatory war message here. It’s hell – and it’s a lot of kids having to do a rough job and a lot of people in harm’s way – regardless of the nobility that people in nice suits get to yammer about. The triumph is to keep your humanity and empathy while others treat it as a chess game. This film was the full demonstration of Robin Williams’ all around talent – and of course launched him into much larger things. Over 25 years later, it still holds up as his most complete film, and sadly we know it will remain that way. He fought for 63 years – so at least he could get through that.