This week in my pair of Robin Williams films, we find a foreign and new kindness entering the cold steely world where happiness and care are not welcomed or found often. Good Morning, Vietnam, directed by Barry Levinson, and Dead Poets Society, directed by Peter Weir, are a pair of touching and deft films that explore how Williams’ characters bring out the light from the darkness. In these films, Williams’ characters enters 1965 Vietnam and a 1950’s Boarding school, respectively. Universes where the good in people can be hard to find and the light grows dimmer with every passing day, until Williams manages to bring joy, happiness, and just a couple laughs to those needing them the most.
What an American Boarding school and 1965 Saigon have in common are little, but it’s about the inadequacy of their lives and need for something worth living or fighting for that these Vietnam soldiers and boarding school boys need the most. This is what Williams can provide for them. It is what he provides for audiences and continues to provide for them as fans revisit these films. I know the personal and genuine touch each of these films have within them is deep and real for so many. Although they may not be the same on their surface—and some may feel they are outdated in their thematic running after women who all look the same—beneath this are heartfelt and real stories about brotherhood, friendship, and survival.
Good Morning, Vietnam is a peculiar and different take on the Vietnam War. It certainly does not hold back on its thoughts and motives. Williams plays Adrian Cronauer, a radio DJ who has been brought in for the morale boosting of the troops. What is so enjoyable about the film is it almost exists as a vacuum into which Williams was let loose to perform and just be what he wanted to be most: someone who could bring joy to those in the darkest of situations.
This reaches the most touching moment when Cronauer is at his low point, and the troops on the truck all egg him on to say his lines and give them cheer. It is bittersweet and strange actually to watch. These troops are on their way to one of the most dangerous parts of the conflict and all they want is a couple laughs to ease their minds. Williams brings this for them at the time they need it most, and it shows that the joy of others actually helps Cronauer overcome his own depression and worries. He finds joy and happiness in knowing he brings comfort to others. This, I think, is at the core of all of Williams’ characters so far. A touching and caring hand that just wants to bring a smile to those in need of one.
We then turn to Dead Poets Society, where it is as similar as it is different. Williams reprises his role as an outsider coming in, an English teacher, John Keating, who through his teaching opens the boys’ minds to a whole different world of art and thinking. Through poetry and exercising independence and free-thinking, Keating brings out the best in all of the boys, culminating in them taking risks and daring to live like they never imagined.
This doesn’t all come with wine and flowers, however. An interesting and complex thread to the free thinking goes wrong after Neil, one of the DPS boys, commits suicide because he is being sent to military school after trying to pursue his dream of acting. It is through the time spent in the class that Williams brought the courage necessary for Neil to pursue his dream, a dream he never even knew he had inside him. It is the circumstances and factors of the patriarchal society these boys are trapped in that lead to Neil’s death. It is bittersweet knowing the facts of their world. Through Keating, the Dead Poets Society is revived and the boys find new ways to grow and become men. Keating shows the boys compassion, love, romance, and fraternity through his teaching methods. He brings them something not only that they’ve never had, but something they never knew existed inside themselves.
Through these films I have seen how much hope and joy can be found in life. What you need is not money, power, or anything like that. To live, Williams shows in his art, is to become your best self, and open yourself up to new ideas, different people, and other worlds, because closing off, shutting down, and overall fear is no way to live. Williams has grown to be more important today than ever before. There are real-world lessons to be found in his films, and I am glad I have found these to get me through it all.
For the rest of my Robin Williams retrospective, visit the homepage.
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