Most of the obituaries and appreciations of Robin Williams (who committed suicide on August 11) mentioned the fact that his breakout acting role came in the film Good Morning Vietnam and that he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his supporting role in Good Will Hunting.
What few, if any, said was that the character Williams played in Good Will Hunting (Dr. Sean Maguire, at right in the above photo) was a Vietnam veteran—a strong, smart and good-hearted one. Those three attributes are rare to non-existent in Vietnam veteran characters on screen.
Here’s what we wrote about Williams and that film in the “Arts of War” column in the April/May 1998 issue of The VVA Veteran:
My guess is that it barely registered with most people. But it’s a good bet that nearly every Vietnam veteran who saw the serious-minded and entertaining dramatic film Good Will Hunting picked up on the fact that the brilliant, funny, sad psychologist played by Robin Williams served in Vietnam and later counseled veterans of the war.
The character, Dr. Sean Maguire, played achingly well by Williams, is a hero—a self-effacing man who knows many things and proves to be an astute, effective analyst.
The fact that Sean is a vet comes up only once, when the title character—Will Hunting, the working-class young genius played by Matt Damon—notices an in-country photo in Sean’s office. The two banter about it for a few seconds and that’s it.
But for the rest of the film we are aware that Sean’s Vietnam War service is an integral part of his psychic makeup, which also includes a hard-knocks, working-class upbringing in Boston’s South End and a deep personal post-war tragedy.
The good news is that director Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting has a Vietnam veteran central character who is smart, savvy, empathic, and altruistic. The riveting, craftily plotted script was written by 27-year-old Damon and Ben Affleck, 25, who plays Will’s best buddy in the movie. In this movie these two young Boston-born-and-raised Hollywood actors show they know a good deal about life—and about their parents’ generation.
You can find a video of Williams’ Oscar acceptance speech on YouTube.