I’ve been waiting for this movie for over a month as one of my friends mentioned that it was on a Best Picture Oscar watch-list. I was skeptical about that, but then this past Monday, CBS Sunday Morning did a segment on it and generally that means the movie is good. I can still remember seeing a making-of for “Glory” on TV and thinking - Matthew Broderick? You gotta be kidding me! Well, we all know how that turned out, so I kept my mind open on this one.
“The Greatest Beer Run Ever” is a Vietnam War movie “based on a true story”. Yeah, we’ve all heard that before, but “based” is stronger than “inspired”. The director and co-writer was Peter Farrelly, whose last picture was “Green Book”. He won producer and original screenplay Oscars for it. He seems an unlikely war movie maker, but he chose to do this one, so good for him. The movie was based on the memoir by John “Chickie” Donohue and J.T. Malloy. Farrelly learned the story from a documentary by the same name on Pabst Blue Ribbon’s YouTube channel. I can about imagine what the Pabst owners felt when they learned they were going to get a free 126-minute commercial. Originally the project was to star Viggo Mortensen and Dylan O’Brien. They dropped out when Apple TV picked it up. It was filmed in Thailand and New Jersey.
“Chickie” Donohue was unemployed and living with his parents when his friendly neighborhood bartender (Bill Murray) grouses about the lack of support for the boys in Vietnam. He wishes he could give them all a beer. Chickie, who had only had five beers that night, is inspired to take up the baton. Before you say “why doesn’t he enlist?”, he had already served four years, albeit in the States. He’s a merchant mariner so he hitches a ride on an ammo ship. He plans on finding four neighborhood friends. He has the beer in a dufflebag. Once he arrives, he has only three days to find these soldiers who are scattered in South Vietnam. It isn’t going to be easy, but he finds one within the first hour. Easy peasy. The second is near the DMZ and now it’s not a lark anymore. He comes under fire. “Don’t worry about him. Every once in a while, you run into a guy who is too dumb to get killed.” A sentiment I bet many vets can agree with. He has an encounter with a CIA agent which marks the moment of the tonal shift from “fighting soldiers from the sky” to “there’s something happenin’ round here”. Ironically, Chickie had taken advantage of being mistaken for a spook. He runs into another friend he hadn’t even set out to see. Good thing he brought extra beers. And finally, it’s back to Saigon, just in time for the Tet Offensive. He and a war correspondent (Russell Crowe) witness the U.S. Embassy attack. They head to Long Binh air base chasing the story and Chickie’s last beer target. And then it’s a flight out with flag-draped coffins, in case you thought this was just a comedy.
When I watch a movie like this, I have to remind myself to wait until I find out how much of it is bullshit and how much of it is historical. There are several incidents in the movie that I shook my head at. As you will see below, the movie is actually acceptably accurate. So, that means it’s not a bad movie, but that doesn’t make it good. I mentioned the tonal shift midway through. Chickie goes from being a chowderhead patriot to a war-weary cynic too tritely. I had to remind myself that in 1967, a majority of Americans still supported the war so his naivete was not uncommon. The movie has Chickie’s sister playing the cliched role of the younger sibling who thinks the elder is being fooled by The Man. But I do respect the movie for trying to be balanced and Chickie does come around, as a majority of Americans did. Chickie’s transition feels rushed, but it is not unbelievable when you factor in that he is a clueless moron at first.
The movie has a made-for-TV feel to it and since Apple TV produced it, I guess that makes sense. However, it definitely looks low budget compared to Apple’s previous foray into the war genre - “Greyhound”. Zac Ephron does an adequate job and manages to keep Chickie from being a cartoon figure. He certainly looks like Donohue. The movie gets gravitas from Murray and Crowe, but the rest of the cast is all unknowns. The actors playing his buddies do a good job of indicating they think Chickie is nuts. Another aspect that made me wonder about the budget is the soundtrack. Normally, a Vietnam War movie might be enhanced by a classic rock selection of songs associated with the war. In this case, most of the songs I had never heard, so I wonder if the producers were too cheap to pay for songs like “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield. It also steers clear of a combat scene, substituting one tracking shot of Chickie and Duggan running through ground squibs and a lame night attack on their trench. The attack on the Embassy has the requisite explosions, but that scene is mainly to set up the dead bodies shots to tell us Chickie was wrong about the war.
Overall, the movie means well and it is the true story of the greatest beer run ever. The title doesn’t lie. I think its closest comparison is to “Operation Dumbo Drop”, another true story that made for inconsequential entertainment. Will it be in Oscar contention? Hell no. Don’t set your expectations that high. Although it will certainly win the Pabst Blue Ribbon movie of the year award.
GRADE = C
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: I was surprised to find that most of the stuff in the movie was accurate. Chickie had been in the Marines four years, but he was stationed in the Philippines and Japan, not just in the States. The idea did originate with a bartender nicknamed “The Colonel”. He was a WWII veteran, but not a colonel. One night he was criticizing the protesters and mentioned that he would like to take the boys some beer. Chickie thought it was a great idea and who better than him. He was seaman and could get on a ship. In fact, he had already been to Vietnam thrice. He might have forgotten his accepting the dare, but the Colonel told Mrs. Poppas and the die was cast. Chickie’s sister was not a protester and didn’t even know he had gone until he left.
Chickie did run into Tommy Collins almost as soon as he arrived. He did bring the beers in a duffel bag, but he had drunk all of them on the voyage, so he had to buy more. It is hard to believe he didn’t know beer was plentiful in Nam. But he was clueless about the war, so maybe. After getting drunk with Collins, he did hop a flight to see Bobby Pappas at Quang Tri, close to the DMZ. He did get around by telling authorities that “If I told you the truth, you wouldn’t believe me.” The CIA cover was exaggerated in the movie. When he was with Pappas, they did not come under fire, but it was a dangerous place to be. He did run into Kevin McLoone by luck while walking down a road, but it was not the dangerous scene the movie depicts. There was no incident with the CIA throwing a prisoner out of a helicopter. The CIA had a reputation for doing that, so it was part of the movie’s attempt to make it the real bad actor in Vietnam.
Chickie ended up in Saigon and then talked his way into Long Binh to see Bobby Pappas. He then returned to Saigon in time for Tet. The Arthur Coates character was fictitious, as was the Vietnamese cop. They are stereotypes. Chickie did not witness the fight for the Embassy. That turning point in the war was depicted to pair Chickie’s change of perspective with America’s. The biggest historical faux pas in the movie is the attempt to make the audience think the VC did not actually blow their way into the embassy grounds, but that it was an inside job. The VC commandoes did indeed blow a hole in the wall to get in. (Sorry, conspiracy theorists.) Chickie did miss his ship home. He ended up spending 4 months in Vietnam. He did not fly out, he caught another freighter.