Dozens of times as a US senator and later as a US diplomat, I’ve returned to Vietnam, primarily focused on how the United States and Vietnam can work together to advance a peaceful relationship not defined or dominated by the war of our youth, but by the interests of our people. But on these visits, wartime memories find us when and where we least expect them: in the smell of a wood fire burning, or the sound of young kids bantering back and forth, riding bicycles on streets crowded by mopeds and livestock in equal number, or along mangrove banks of rivers and canals indistinguishable from those we operated on over 50 years ago. Pricked by vivid shards of memory, we remember most the friends we shared those moments with on a youthful journey we revisit decades later, from lessons learned about life, leadership, and loss, to the reality that even in the middle of a war that was a Rorschach test for ideology and perspective, human relationships — friendships — mattered most.
The friendships we make as young people in war is a primary theme of the new movie “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” directed by Peter Farrelly that will be released later this month by AppleTV+. It is based on the true story of John “Chickie” Donohue, who, disillusioned at home by political division and discord over Vietnam — the war at home at times as fierce as the war overseas — decided to show his support for his enlisted buddies from New York City’s Inwood neighborhood by tracking them down and giving them beers.
Against all odds, Chickie finds his pals on bases across South Vietnam and delivers his malted care packages. Along the way, the messy reality he witnesses in South Vietnam forces Chickie to reconsider his own assumptions about the war. He comes to understand how fellow citizens could oppose the war but support the warriors, a lesson it took too many others far too long to learn. Through a series of conversations with Saigon-based reporters, including with a grizzled battlefield scribe played by Russell Crowe, Chickie comes to understand that truthful reporting about the war is not a threat to American society but an essential bulwark of it.
But relationships, not politics, are at the center of the movie. Chickie ultimately returns to New York, pays his respects to the mother of a friend who is killed in Vietnam, and finds common ground with his sister, whose grief over the deaths of young Inwood men in Vietnam inspires her to join the antiwar movement. Vietnam may have been our most divisive war, but this leg of Chickie’s journey feels particularly universal.
It reminded me of the story of a forgotten Marine in the iconic photo of the flag-raisers over Iwo Jima, the one with his back to the camera. He had been killed in action the very next day, and no one ever told this young man’s grieving mother that her son was the one leaning over and planting the pole on the top of Mount Suribachi. Not until — one day years after the war — unable to stop thinking about his dead buddy, an unlikely hero, a down on his luck, unhappy Ira Hayes shook himself upright, hitchhiked from Arizona to Texas, found his buddy’s mother, and informed her that her son was a great man who’d never be forgotten. Like Chickie’s gesture to the mother of his fallen friend, these are wartime reminders of bonds that endure beyond the battlefield.
“The Greatest Beer Run Ever” doesn’t challenge viewers like Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” or Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.” It doesn’t have to do that. Its power is bringing to life people and places that anyone who has served in uniform, or grown up in a neighborhood or community defined by loyalty and friendship can relate to — and reminding us that we often can rediscover those bonds in the hardest of circumstances. That was one of the realities of Vietnam, where young men put their lives in each other’s hands, and, regardless of where they came from or where they were headed, created lifelong ties as enduring as any built on the streets of Chickie Donohue’s Inwood.
For those of us of the Vietnam generation, the film is a poignant reminder that, whatever we did in that time and whatever our political perspective, how we experienced Vietnam is inextricably intertwined with who we experienced it with. But for all of us, the film can serve as a reminder that even in times of great division and conflict, hopefully we can find common ground; if not, at least we can find our common humanity. Learning that lesson hopefully does not demand that we travel thousands of miles from home as Chickie had to, but that we can find that spirit right here at home, again.
John F. Kerry is a Vietnam veteran who served as secretary of state from 2013 to 2017 and has served as President Biden’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate since 2021. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the US government.