Back in 2014, documentary filmmaker Andrew Muscato sat down for coffee with former New York Daily News reporter Joanna Molloy. During their conversation, Muscato asked Molloy a simple question: “What’s the best story you never wrote about during all your time at the paper?” Molloy immediately offered an answer that would eventually lead to a book, a documentary short, and the new Apple Original Films release The Greatest Beer Run Ever, dropping Friday on AppleTV+.
The urban legend of John “Chickie” Donohue — the man who inexplicably traveled to Vietnam during the heat of the Vietnam War to deliver beer to his friends — sounded too good to be true. It was a story handed down from journalist to journalist at a Daily News hangout, and Molloy eventually found Donohue and many of his friends, validating the incredible tale. She would eventually co-write a book with Donohue called “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” and Muscato understood the story had cinematic potential.
“To me, the best movies are always about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and so this kind of fits very much squarely into that,” Muscato explained. “The thought was Joanna would writer the book, and I would make a short doc where we reunite the guys and have them tell the story. We figured that tandem of a book and a short would be enough for a proof of concept to ultimately get other partners involved.”
Green Book director Peter Farrelly came on board to bring “Chickie” Donohue’s story to the big screen. Muscato references Farrelly’s love of characters — even in absurdist films like There’s Something About Mary — and his love of the underdog as being prime examples of why he was so perfectly attuned to the material. Farrelly also boasts an affinity for the road trip movie. Green Book. Dumb and Dumber. Kingpin. The Greatest Beer Run Ever fits solidly within that cinematic road trip catalog, maybe even the biggest road trip movie to date.
Once the project kicked off, the writing team of Farrelly, Brian Currie, and Pete Jones travelled down to Florida where “Chickie” now lives. They interviewed “Chickie” about his experience, got a feel for the man, and wanted to understand his evolution to better illustrate the journey of John “Chickie” Donohue as played by Zac Efron in the film.
“The story was always there. I’ve always had this this mantra: ‘Just stick to the story.’ People just naturally are intrigued by the story, so there wasn’t a lot of creative license needed or embellishment required,” Muscato said. “Pete [Farrelly] said in other interviews that he always wanted to make sure that ‘Chickie’ was proud of this movie. So, for that reason, ‘Chickie’ was involved in a different steps of the way from start to finish.”
It’s been several years since Hollywood last produced a major Vietnam War film, so The Greatest Beer Run Ever has the opportunity to reframe the war with a modern filmmaking perspective. Muscato looks at the respect and honor bestowed on Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and the disconnect with those soldiers returning home from the Vietnam War. As he reflects, modern Americans have been able to separate respect for the soldier from opinions of unpopular conflicts. So, the film, in effect, serves as an ode to those soldiers — mostly minority and working class men — who suffered and, in many cases, gave their lives to the extremely controversial war.
But perhaps most importantly, the filmmaking team behind The Greatest Beer Run Ever made it a mandate for the project to include as many authentic aspects of the Vietnamese perspective as possible. As Muscato rightly states, many 1980s-era Vietnam films often portrayed Vietnam and the Vietnamese people in an exceedingly negative light. To correct that, the production incorporated Vietnamese consultants, former war correspondents, and Columbia professor Lien-Hang T. Nguyen who is a world-renown expert on the Tet Offensive which is seen at the film. The film’s Saigon-born costume designer, Bao Tranchi, was a refugee after the fall of Saigon, but she was incredibly proud of working on the film, her first Hollywood feature, because it gave her the opportunity to portray Saigon and Vietnam as it really was — a vibrant cosmopolitan city that varied greatly from the dingy, seedy visions offered in previous Vietnam films.
Even the lines of Vietnamese dialogue spoken in the film are all offered by either native Vietnamese or Vietnamese-American people.
“Hollywood has a very sad, sad tradition of excluding Vietnamese participation from movies made about the Vietnam War. Even though this one is told through an American perspective, it was very important that we show Vietnam accurately, authentically, and as sensitive to the Vietnamese people as possible.”
The Greatest Beer Run Ever premieres on AppleTV+ today.\