“Green Book” (U.S. rated PG-13)
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
“Based on a true story!” and “Inspired by true events!” More now than seemingly ever before, these are some of the most controversial words used in describing movies.
After all, exactly which ones of those are the operative words? “Based on” and “inspired by” could suggest there may be just a hint of what made this tale true in the first place. When was the last time you saw a film make an absolute declaration that it was “A True Story”?
In 2018, quite a few of the year’s most outstanding pictures found themselves having to explain some storyline choices. And a few of them have us asking whether we should hold questionable “facts” or inaccuracies, fabrications and outright lies in a movie against the film if it contributes to an overall fantastic picture?
Well, on its own, and without taking into account any of the controversies that have popped up – more on that in a bit – “Green Book” in definitely a fantastic picture.
An amazing all-arounder, deftly blending comedy and drama with a spectacular story and some of the most exceptional performances of the year, “Green Book” and its “based on a true story” plot are bringing awareness to something of which so many younger people were never even aware, and of which, apparently, so many older people have forgotten.
It centers on a brief period involving the lives of some actual people. Dr. Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) is a world-class African-American pianist, who is about to embark on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962. In need of a driver and protection, Shirley recruits Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), better known as Tony Lip – a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx. Despite their differences, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting racism and danger in an era of segregation.
Director Peter Farrelly – who’s clearly graduated from his earlier, less serious collaborations like “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber” with his brother Bobby, his writing/directing partner – also wrote the screenplay, along with Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga, Tony Lip’s actual son.
The name “Green Book” comes from “The Negro Motorist Green Book”, an annual publication during the 1930s through 1960s, that outlined for black travelers in the south the restaurants, rest stops and motels or hotels that were black-friendly during this dangerous time, and warned of the places that might have been “sundown towns” – where non-whites were not allowed after dark.
Dr. Shirley would have certainly needed the protection of a tough guy-type in a good part of the U.S. during this era. But were he and Tony Lip actually friends?
In what seems like an attempt to sully what is arguably an Oscar front-runner, some are questioning the accuracy of this relationship, including some of Shirley’s own family members. Though Vallelonga’s son insists this is based on the stories his father told him.
Some others are suggesting the film doesn’t go far enough to show the severity of the Jim Crow south during this time. I’m not sure which movie those folks watched, but there are countless of these heartbreaking and painful scenes in “Green Book”. And it goes as far as necessary in a film that is not a direct documentary about the Green Book era.
Those fixated on claims of “historical inaccuracies” are missing the point. Just as with fellow Oscar nominees “BlacKkKlansman”, which added characters who didn’t exist and amalgamated others, and “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which completely rearranged timelines, these decisions all ultimately created more compelling movies.
These are not documentaries, and they do allow for creative license. And because of this, and regardless of anything else, “Green Book” is a truly inspiring, feel-good movie.
Most of the credit has to go to the wonderful cast. Linda Cardellini as Tony Lip’s open-minded wife Dolores is a joy to watch. But this is all the Ali-Mortensen Show!
There’s no doubt in my mind that Ali will win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (he was nominated this past Tuesday), which will be his second in just two short years (following his win for “Moonlight”).
If you thought his first win was a fluke or designed to appease the #OscarsSoWhite uproar from a couple years ago, all doubts should be erased immediately. This is perhaps the overall single greatest performance of the year, and Ali has already deservedly won the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards, and is up for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award this weekend.
Mortensen (“A History of Violence” and “Captain Fantastic”) – possibly the most underrated actor alive today – is also nominated for a SAG in the Best Actor category. He is unspeakably good as Tony Lip, as he is always, and rightfully earned his third Oscar nomination for Best Actor for this performance.
Like Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, Mortensen and Ali are a dynamic duo – a dream team.
Will the “controversies” be held again this fine production? Well, it’s already won the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, and was named Best Film of 2018 by the National Board of Review.
This week it received five Academy Award nominations. Along with those for Ali and Mortensen, it’ll compete for Oscars in film editing, original screenplay and, of course, for Best Picture.
I say “of course”, because at this point – I still have a couple others from 2018 to see – “Green Book” was the very best movie of the year!
And that’s the whole truth!
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.