If this wasn’t a true story, you’d think it is just too preposterous of a tale to tell. “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” was initially a documentary about Chickie Donahue who, during the Vietnam War, travels to the remote and dangerous areas in Vietnam to bring his hometown buddies a few American beers. Zach Efron takes on the lead role of Chickie in this narrative film, creating a character you initially question but begin to love as you watch him grow to understand the world around. And while there are a few laughs along the way, this isn’t the comedy the poster and the title would infer.
We meet Chickie, a Merchant Marine, living at home with his parents as he burns the midnight oil, drinking all night with his buddies. Dad is none too happy with his son’s choices, and with the tally of neighbors’ and friends’ deaths during the war adding up, Chickie, “only 5 beers in,” vows to bring some of the neighborhood tavern’s favorite beers (Pabst Blue Ribbon) to a few friends fighting the fight. In the light of day, Chickie begins to rethink his plans, but it’s too late…the neighborhood has hope. As luck (or not) would have it, a ship is ready to set sail to Vietnam in mere hours giving Chickie little time to pack his bags filled with the working class refreshment.
Arriving in this foreign place, dressed like a golfer on vacation, Chickie’s dumb luck lands him in his first friend’s camp. As the laughter ensues, there’s an overtone of worry, not just about the obvious, but about Chickie’s best friend Tommy who is MIA. Undeterred about the dangers ahead, warned by the American journalists and the military alike, Chickie uses his street smarts to find his next friend whose response isn’t quite so welcoming. As a commanding officer states, “He’s too dumb to get himself killed,” Chickie is on a time clock, needing to get back to his ship and ultimately back home.
The 1960’s were tumultuous times politically and “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” doesn’t shy away from the issues at hand. Families and friends are divided in a country which mirrors their situations. Conversations hit hard, hearing both sides of the rationale behind sending our US troops to battle. From old-timers like the tavern owner/bartender The Colonel (Bill Murray) and the younger generation who parrots what they hear on the television, to groups of protestors looking into the truth and the consequences, we see that times haven’t changed at all. Conspiracy theorists, nationalists, and news shows who skew the information all contribute to the unrest in the US. Sound familiar? This reverberation of opinion is at once disconcerting as it is enlightening as the film gently pushes us to look at today’s world.
Efron depicts a loving yet uninformed Chickie who’s light-bulb-moments occur very subtly throughout the film as he appears to mentally perform a 180 degree turn. He’s growing and maturing while he’s learning and Efron finds a nuance to create this reality. Russell Crowe has a pivotal part as Coates, an American photojournalist who, thanks to editing and direction, hones in on the brutality of war. Murray’s character is reminiscent of the men of the Greatest Generation, as does Chickie’s father (Paul Adelstein), proudly stating the young men in his NYC neighborhood died with honor protecting their country.
“The Greatest Beer Run Ever” is a surprising drama with moments of humor as the story tells an unlikely true tale. Although it is missing a few key notes such as why Chickie and his bar buddies aren’t serving — perhaps this would have been an entire sub-story within the film — and the dialect the actors attempt generally feels contrived, it’s still a story that will amaze and defy all your sensibilities.