Watching Peter Farrelly’s new film, The Greatest Beer Run Ever, and knowing little about it going in, I kept thinking this would be a totally absurd, beyond belief story if it isn’t one that really happened. By the end I saw it is indeed 100% true, proving life can sometimes be stranger than fiction. As such it turns out to be one of the more memorable, and certainly heartfelt movies this year, as well as a Vietnam War movie that couldn’t be further from The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now, but a character-driven drama that defies logic but makes you believe once again in the power of the human spirit. This is the rare Vietnam film seen from the POV of a civilian, a key reason it works as well as it does.
This is Farrelly’s first film since winning Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay Oscars for 2018’s Green Book, and whether it is his lucky day or not it just had its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in the same time slot and day of the week that Green Book premiered at TIFF. That film went on to win the often Oscar predictive TIFF People’s Choice Award. Can lightning strike twice? It really doesn’t matter because this is a movie that defiantly marches to its own drummer. It also provides Zac Efron with one of the best roles of his career, and Russell Crowe with his second choice supporting role this year.
Efron plays John “Chickie” Donohue, a regular guy who spends much of his time with his buddies at Doc Fiddler’s bar in Inwood, New York. It is 1967, and the Vietnam War is in full swing. Also protests against it are gaining strength but Chickie and his Friends, along with bartender Doc aka “The Colonel” (Bill Murray in a toned-down brief supporting role) come up with a crazy idea to support their fellow neighborhood buddies whose number came up and are serving in the war. The idea is simple, but sounds a bit far fetched to pull off: what if they could bring a little bit of home to the front lines by sharing a good old fashioned can of beer with the soldiers?
Chickie may not be serving in the war himself, but he is a Merchant Marine and very familiar with shipping vessels which is key to getting over to Saigon so he volunteers, packs up a duffel bag filled with dozens of cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer ( a product placement bonanza) and gets a job in the boiler room of a ship headed to Saigon. Incredibly he finds himself there in the heart of an increasingly controversial war, ready to dispense his beer cans and using intel to track down the neighborhood guys wherever they may be on the battlefields. Casually dressed like he does back in New York, initially officers wonder if the guy is some sort of CIA agent with an agenda. Soon however he is in over his head as he must escape harms way with old buddies caught up in something that is definitely not a game, like pal Tommy Collins (Archie Renaux). There is also a trip to a bar where he encounters journalists covering the war including Arthur Coates (Crowe), a grizzled war photographer who at first dismisses the odd Chickie , but soon becomes intrigued by his crazy stated mission, one he makes sound a lot more logistically easy than it turns out to be. Striking up an instant kind of camraderie and partnership with Arthur, Chickie finds himself dodging bullets, bombs, and some scary battlefield encounters as he does what he came there to do, and actually finds a lot of the buddies who are alternately shocked, amused, and horrified to see him, especially as he offers up his gift of beer with the explanation that is the sole reason he has come to Vietnam. Chickie will discover, like so many of us did, that this war isn’t all its purported to be and he gets a quick education in what is really going on, thanks in large part to Arthur, the friends who are in hell on earth, and by witnessing barbaric acts where he would least expect to find them.
As things heighten dramatically for him, the stakes are raised in terms of getting back home safe and sound, but this is an experience that will change this young man forever. Based on a book written by Donohue and JT Molloy, Farrelly, Brian Currie (Green Book), and Pete Jones have written a screenplay that captures the somewhat innocent, but can-do spirit of this unique individual who has goodness in his heart and just wants to do something for guys who suddenly found themselves on the front lines of a war that was becoming hugely unpopular. You can also call it an awakening for Chickie himself. Yes, it all sounds crazy but the real Donohue had served four years in the Marines and been to Vietnam three times before as a merchant seaman plus he had the right security clearances to be able to pull this off and to work on a transport vessel which normally brings ammunition and supplies, but this time with Chickie back on board, beer. Now living at home again and travelling in circles with great support for the war, well except for his own sister Christine (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis) who sees things another way, Chickie thinks he is doing the right thing and he is, but what he discovers on his travels with beer through the country , what he witnesses with his own eyes, will change him. It is quite an adventure, to say the least.
Efron is ideally cast, although a guy with military training and knowhow, it is his gung ho basic humanity and concern for his friends, that make him so engaging. He is almost an innocent oddly enough, until he isn’t. The character gets his eyes opened wide, and this is such an interesting story to show a side of the war we haven’t yet seen in movies. Farrelly in fact was initially attracted by a 12 minute You Tube 2015 documentary on the you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it tale, as well as the bestselling book, “The Greatest Beer Run Ever: A True Story of Friendship Stronger Than War”. He immediately knew there was a movie in it somewhere. He was right. Casting is important here too, and Crowe is a terrific choice as the war-torn chronicler with a camera. After a richly amusing turn this summer in Thor: Love And Thunder this supporting turn is again proof this is an actor who can do just about anything. Jake Picking, Kyle Allen, Will Ropp, and Will Hochman are among the other young men who figure into the story.
An Apple Original Film in association with Skydance, The Greatest Beer Run Ever also has excellent cinematography from Sean Porter, and was produced by David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger, Andrew Muscato (who also made that 12 minute You Tube docu), and Jake Myers. It will play in theatres before beginning streaming on September 30.