I immediately thought of Driving Miss Daisy. There is much in common between these films, or so I thought. Reinventing a powerful story of race.
But Green Book is based on a true story, it is not a retooled retread. While there are similarities, like a two-person story that is about acceptance and friendship, the journeys are different.
Films like this work because of strong actors telling a compelling story. You don’t have to identify with them, you just have to believe and care about them. In Green Book, you do on both counts.
The film has received generally strong reviews but has had its share of criticism about historical inaccuracies. How significant are those inaccuracies? The main points I’ve heard deal with whether Don Shirley and his brother were really estranged or not. The film says they were, but the family says not. In the context of the film, that seems a minor point because Don Shirley was estranged from many things in life. The other main criticism was whether Shirley and Tony Lip were actually friends after their journey. That’s a point of debate, the family says not, but Shirley in an interview said that they were. I’m left believing they remained friends.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, “Unless they’re making a documentary, filmmakers are history’s interpreters, not its chroniclers. Green Book interprets the sea of historical events to reveal a truth relevant to today: Resist those who would tell you to know your place.”
Abdul-Jabbar also said the greater truth, rather than some accuracy details, was the takeaway. In my view, the film has big takeways; it is not perfect, but bio films always take dramatic license, you just hope it is not a major rewrite of history.
I won’t rehash the plot, the story details are easy to find. Even if the film takes some liberties with plot and character, what remains is a storyline that takes you on some interesting detours and we get to know characters that have flaws and underlying complexity. Part of the drama is directly related to who these two characters are, and how these underlying issues add problems to the film’s dramatic tension. Each of these men want to be who they are but as they literally travel outside of their comfort zones, the real world intersects. Society draws boundaries, but so do we.
Viggo Mortensen is compared to Robert De Niro in how he physically becomes the character he is portraying. Besides the voice and mannerisms, Mortensen gained a lot of weight and learned to move with it in portraying “Tony Lip” Vallelonga. There is an underlying sense of violence with his character but it is not present at all times. He’s a confident man, comfortable and even humble about his shortcomings. When he has to become the tough guy, the transition is very rapid, but it is focused, and disappears as quickly. Violence is a tool and his uses it skillfully. That quality is what interests Don Shirley’s record company to want to hire him as the driver/bodyguard.
Dr. Don Shirley is an equally enigmatic character and Mahershala Ali delivers a multi-dimensional performance. Shirley more quickly shows his temper and frustration, although it is verbally threatening rather than physical. While Tony Lip seems comfortable with his faults, Shirley is not with his own. Shirley takes great strides to encase his issues behind extravagant worldly effects or his musical performances, things he can control. This sense of control will be tested as they drive into the South where discrimination and injustice will test them both. Neither of them are as ready as they need to be.
The Green Book is their map, for a journey of confrontation and discovery.