Good Morning Vietnam, directed by Barry Levinson, 1987

Movie poster, 1987; book cover, 2018

There’s a big new biography of Robin Williams, the always (it seemed) hilarious improv comedian, TV and film star who was sadly, a tortured soul. I’m not reviewing the well received book Robin by Dave Itzkoff, and I’m not recounting Williams’s meteoric rise from improvising TV’s Mork from Ork through two dozen Hollywood films including an Oscar win as Best Supporting Actor for “Good Will Hunting.”

Here at the Ugly American Book Club we are reminiscing about Williams’s star turn as Armed Forces Radio broadcaster Adrian Cronauer in the 1987 movie “Good Morning Vietnam.” Just stringing those three words together echoes the ebullient wake-up yell of Saigon’s most memorable morning disc jockey.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3m

As New York Times film critic Vincent Canby observed, the Cronauer character’s irrepressible sunniness filled Saigon’s airwaves at a time when the reality of the escalating war in Vietnam was becoming increasingly grim. As portrayed by Williams, the disk jockey’s irreverent, iconoclastic, antiestablishment monologues proved to be a daily tonic for ordinary G.I.s ground down by military regulations.

Williams improvised a good deal of his disk jockey banter to the delight of director Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Markowitz. Markowitz himself apparently improvised the script “based loosely” on the real AFRN disk jockey. The result was nothing short of a tour de force performance by Williams.

The set-up of the plot is initially predictable. Airman Cronauer settles in at a U.S. Army radio station following a much cushier stint at a military base in Crete. Mindful that there’s a war on, Cronauer’s superior officers insist that the fast-talking, wisecracking Cronauer stick to the soothing music of Perry Como and Percy Faith. Knowing what G.I.s want, Cronauer crosses the line and launches a musical frontal assault against established military policy by throwing red meat rock’n’roll at his audience and serving up a potluck of potty-mouthed humor. His on-air vocal impressions of Nixon and Johnson, along with a cast of made-up on-air persona, mocked U.S. policy in Southeast Asia.

When his sidekick Ed Garlick takes him to a bar, Cronauer falls for Trinh, a Vietnamese woman in a white ao dai. Although fraternization with local women is taboo, the music-spinning miscreant buys a bicycle and follows Trinh to her English-language lesson. In an effort to impress her, he takes over the class and runs Vietnamese students through a gamut of English obscenities. When he invites Trinh to the movies on a date, her whole family chaperones her. Later when G.I.s in a bar harass her brother Tuan, Cronauer springs to his defense. An ensuing barfight lands Cronauer in hot water. To this point, our reckless the G.I. D.J. is a hero, at least to his buddies.

In 1965, Saigon’s cafes were soft targets for Viet Cong terrorists. One day Tuan comes to collect Cronauer from Jimmy Wah’s Bar. Moments after they leave together, the bar explodes, killing and wounding bar patrons and passersby on the street. Cronauer assists the rescue by carrying out the injured. But when he gets back to base and attempts to describe the terrorist bombing on the air, his Army bosses pull the plug on his report and sideline him from further broadcasts.

Cronauer is laying low at his girlfriend’s house when she breaks the news that any future relationship between them is impossible because of her family’s objections to a friendship with an American.

When Cronauer and Garlick drive to An Loc, about 60 miles north of Saigon, to do some interviews, their Jeep hits a landmine. They escape injury and flee into the jungle in Viet Cong-held territory. It is Trinh’s brother Tuan who finds them in the jungle. An Army helicopter locates them and brings them back to Saigon. When Cronauer threatens to quit, Garlick convinces him to stick with it, and when they are stuck in a traffic jam, G.I.s heading to battle recognize him, reinforcing for him the unique role he plays as an on-air cheerleader and morale-booster for the troops.

Cronauer is faced with another personal crisis when his C.O. informs him that Tuan is a Viet Cong operative. Cronauer finds it hard to believe because Tuan has saved his life on two occasions. When the American D.J.’s friendship with Tuan and other Vietnamese becomes an issue, he is ordered to leave Vietnam. He can’t leave without seeing Trinh, and though it may be treasonous, he feels it’s his duty to inform Tuan that U.S. Army counterterrorist agents are after him. So is Cronauer a hero or a chump?

When Cronauer confronts Tuan, the enemy agent, an amusing, thought-provoking movie starring a comedic genius is set for a tragic ending. But there’s comic relief when the screenwriter tosses in a good ol’ American baseball game where Cronauer gets to play with his “good Vietnamese” English students. His buddy Garlick also finds a way for Cronauer, who has been banned from the airwaves, to bid his radio audience farewell. Gooooodbye Viii-et-naaam!

For the Boys – directed by Mark Rydell, 1991

Movie poster, 1991

My cable company offers the Starz Network for free. Even for free, I’d give Starz only 2 stars. The other day I watched “For the Boys,” a star vehicle for Bette Midler. The 1991 film was a red, white and blue flop that lacked sizzle despite musical numbers intended to let the Divine Miss M. dazzle.

Here she’s teamed up with James Caan in a cheesy script intended to pay homage to American entertainers who went on U.S.O. Tours to cheer up and cheer on U.S. troops. The tale traces the careers, friendship and enmity of the musical partners over 50 years, from World War II to Vietnam.

James Caan plays Eddie Sparks, an exceedingly charming fellow with limited song and dance skills in the mold of Bob Hope. Kids of my generation who saw a lot of Bob Hope on TV couldn’t understand why he was so popular with our parents’s generation. Bette Midler’s Dixie Leonard is a singer-comedienne who gets her big break when she’s paired with Eddie for a U.S.O. tour of North Africa, where Dixie’s husband serves as an Army combat photographer.

Right away we see that Eddie’s patriotic sacrifice in volunteering to entertain the troops is mostly a publicity campaign to advance his reputation as an altruistic American patriot. He’s married, with three young daughters, but lusts after Dixie and plays father to her fatherless son Danny.

Fast forward to 1969 when Eddie lures Dixie for another U.S.O. tour, this time in Vietnam, where Danny Leonard is an Army captain. Danny commands a firebase, a temporary encampment set up to provide artillery support. The word “firebase” portends an unfortunate end to the tour.

Eddie is his gung-ho self, blindly supporting U.S. policy in Southeast Asia with a kind of Make America the Greatest Generation Again ethos. “I can’t tell you how damn proud we are of what you’re doing here,” he tells an incredulous Capt. Leonard. “We’re gonna beat those little bastards, y’know,” he says. Expressing the futility of carrying on a conventional war against a jungle-based guerrilla army, Capt. Leonard retorts, “Yes, sir, soon as we find them,”

Later Leonard points out a sweet-looking G.I. from Chicago, and tells his mom: “He collects ears. Cuts them off dead bodies.” Cut-off ears is a common theme in Ugly American literature.

Their time in Vietnam shows the old hoofers that times have changed. Their audience consists of drug-addled draftees who don’t believe in their mission. They’re not like the polite, hopeful young American kids who volunteered to fight fascism fifty years earlier. The whole U.S.O. thing – intended to remind soldiers what they’re fighting for – essentially white American culture – is stale. When a blonde go-go dancer takes the stage to dance the frug for the boys, the grunts aren’t content to watch her moves; they move in and nearly devour her. When Dixie, now about sixty years old, appears on stage, a G.I. shouts, “Show us your tits, Mama.”

“For the Boys” might evoke a bit of nostalgia among eighty-somethings but Millennials will find it as outdated as Bob Hope.

FIrst They Killed My Father – directed by Angelina Jolie, 2017

Unlike any movie you’ve ever seen, this is a Cambodian feature film with an all-Cambodian cast who speak Khmer. Naturally the $24 million it took to make the Netflix movie came from Americans. Principal among the filmmakers – credited as director and cowriter – is the American actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie, a citizen of Cambodia.

In the first two minutes of the movie, we see a sorry pair of Americans: President Nixon and presidential adviser Henry Kissinger. They appear in archival news footage, mouthing off lies about their policy of noninterference while hiding the truth about the war they are prosecuting in Cambodia.

The Pinocchio-nosed Nixon says: “Cambodia, a small country of 7 million people, has been a neutral nation since the Geneva agreement of 1954. American policy since then has been to scrupulously respect the neutrality of the Cambodian people.” Interspersed with footage of U.S. Air Force bombing runs, Nixon explains, “What we are doing is to help the Cambodians help themselves… This is not an invasion of Cambodia.”

And in Hitleresque prose, Kissinger adds that “civilian casualties are occasional difficulties in reaching a final solution “

Well, Dr. K., your policy of dropping tons of bombs on Cambodian civilians was not the solution – just as it did not work against the Pathet Lao movement in neighboring Laos.)

Carpet-bombing of neutral Cambodia began in March 1969. Over four years, the United States dropped nearly 3 million bombs, killing an estimated 5,000 civilians annually. And that was only the beginning of Cambodia’s agony.

According to war historians, the United States escalated its bombing campaign in January 1973 trying to halt the advance of the Khmer rouge. The stepped up bombing destroyed large swaths of land around Phnom Penh but only delayed the take-over and in fact assisted recruitment into Pol Pot’s murderous ranks. Official sources indicate the United States spent more than $1 billion on military assistance and half a billion more on economic assistance to support Lon Nol’s government. In mid-1973, Congress halted the Pentagon’s illegal U.S. military incursion into Cambodia. Lon Nol fought the K.R. for two more years before fleeing to the United States

Jolie’s film is based on the autobiography of Loung Ung, who was five years old in April 1975 when the Khmer Rough consolidated its control over Cambodia. The horror of genocide is seen through Loung’s unblinking unbelieving eyes. When Pol Pot orders the evacuation of Phnom Penh, her family is forced to leave their comfortable home in the city. They were not alone as the Khmer Rouge ordered all 2 million residents of Phnom Penh to leave the city.

Wide-eyed, never understanding why this is happening, Loung is marched deeper and deeper into the jungle. Because all private property is banned, she and her family must surrender all of their possessions. Loung watches as her father is taken to be killed, calling out, “Come back, Pa.” It is heartbreaking to watch her – and scores of other children – doing hard labor in the Khmer Rouge work camps, experiencing sickness, starvation and  separation from family members.As a seven-year old, Loung is taught hand-to-hand combat, how to use a bayonet, how simple it is to fire an AK-47 and how tricky it is to set land mines. She is brainwashed and programmed to kill Vietnamese soldiers who entered Cambodia in December 1978.

Like little Loung, we watch wordlessly as Pol Pot’s lieutenants take Cambodia backward and begin filling the Killing Fields with corpses, as many as 3 million in all. A history student, I found myself reflecting on a time 40 years earlier when Hitler embarked on a ruthlessly inhumane campaign of extermination in Europe. The handiwork of the Khmer Rouge was equally insane and the civilized world was equally or even more aware of what was going on. Surely Kissinger knew. Surely the genocide was known at the United Nations, where the Khmer Rouge occupied Cambodia’s seat.

In war movies Americans watch, Vietnamese soldiers in their olive-green uniforms and pith hats are the bad guys. In this story, they’re the good guys. But the Vietnamese saviors were eventually seen as invaders. Cambodia was Vietnam’s Vietnam. Bogged down for a decade, Vietnam suffered 30,000 casualties in its battle to break the Khmer Rouge and pacify the countryside for its own ideological reasons. Vietnam finally pulled out of Cambodia in 1989.

Loung Ung was 10 when she left her homeland. She now lives in Ohio.

Eat, Pray, Love – by Elizabeth Gilbert, 2006

In the third and final part of her bestselling travelogue, Elizabeth Gilbert returns to Bali, an island in the archipelagic center of Southeast Asia. Whereas her visit to Italy was the Eat part of her book, and her time in India was the Pray part, it is in Indonesia where she finds Love. It’s no wonder she’s subtitled the third part “Even in my underwear I feel different.”

Gilbert is no Ugly American. A 34-year-old divorcee on an odyssey of self-discovery, Gilbert stands out like a beacon in the darkness of Ugly Americanism. She is tall and blonde. She is frank and friendly. She is intelligent and inquisitive, open-minded and optimistic. She is by turns gutsy, confident and self-deprecating. She is eminently likable like Sandra Dee or Sandra Bullock. In sum, she is very American in the pop culture way many people who have watched American-made romantic comedies imagine Americans to be.

As a memoirist, the New Yorker is full of wit and full of ideas as easy to swallow as vanilla ice cream. She opens by painting an idyllic picture of Bali as a tourism paradise where every chore is easily accomplished even by the klutziest of Americans. Next she describes Ubud, the island’s capital of carving, painting and classical dance, as “a small Pacific version of Santa Fe” with monkeys.

In the movie version, starring the affable American Julia Roberts as the globe-trotting divorcee Liz Gilbert, the plot and dialogue seem to lack the verve of Gilbert’s prose. The best thing about the movie is watching voluptuous scenes of Bali flash by. It’s like being glued to one of TV’s worst shows, “Hawaii Five-O,” to catch a few gorgeous glimpses of Oahu.

Never mind. Let’s take the advice of the Balinese medicine man Ketut Liyer (played to perfection by actor Hadi Subiyanto):

“Smile with face. Smile with mind. Even smile with liver.”