Premise: Early in World War II, an inexperienced U.S. Navy captain must lead an Allied convoy being stalked by Nazi U-boat wolfpacks.
Throughout the running time of Greyhound, we learn more about Captain Ernie Krause’s (Tom Hanks) leadership skills, but shockingly little about his life outside the titular naval destroyer. The mission is simple: guide a fleet of Allied supply ships across the vast Atlantic Ocean, and sink as many Nazi U-boats as possible. The fleet remains unprotected from air cover for over 50 hours over the ocean, and this provides the ticking clock conceit to the film. Greyhound bears a striking similarity to last year’s 1917, in that there’s a clear endpoint objective at stake, and the characters we spend the most time with are frustratingly opaque. But whereas 1917 took time to reflect and add at least a little characterization between its video game-like checkpoints, Greyhound only stops and pauses for a scant few moments.
Directed by Aaron Schneider and written by Hanks – as adapted from the C.S. Forester novel The Good Shepherd – the film can be admired for presenting its own very specific language throughout. Hanks barks orders to his underlings, and vice versa, and it’s almost immediately repeated by its recipient. By at least the midway point of the film, it’s safe to expect to hear the same dialogue echoed by someone else at least twice. Since much of the dialogue is technical, naval language, Hanks deserves credit for making the point of entry rather low; there’s another version of this script that could have completely gone over the audience’s head. And credit as well to Schneider for visually presenting each rapidly-fluctuating action in a coherent manner, a feat that’s easier said than done. Greyhound marks only the second feature as director for Schneider, as he’s primarily cut his teeth as a television cinematographer, and he brings a notable visual flair to the film (along with cinematographer Shelly Johnson). The drab, cloudy grays of the sea and sky are contrasted nicely with the red emergency lights of the control room, where a majority of the action takes place. The final shot, in the captain’s quarters with the sunlight pouring in through dual portholes over Hanks’ weary frame, is particularly impressive, as if the heavens are blessing him for a job well done.
This is a film that, sadly, should be viewed in a theater on a big screen, and Hanks has lamented that fact in recent interviews. But after the theater closures earlier this year, Apple notably stepped in and bought the rights for a reported $70 million for its streaming platform. The acquisition is Apple’s biggest to date, with Hanks’ star power perfect bait to lure in new members to AppleTV+ (the jury’s still out on the service in general, but that’s an article for another day). The movie still looks great, but the visual and sound effects could work so much better on a big screen, rather than the latest iPhone, which is likely to be what most people (myself included) view it on.
Hanks, no surprise, is steady as a rock as Captain Krause, dependable and trustworthy. But most of that stems from our collective knowledge of Hanks’s commanding screen presence throughout his career. An early flashback scene provides some foundation between him and his paramour Evelyn (Elisabeth Shue), and Schneider flashes back to her image occasionally later, but this is the extent of what we see or hear of Krause on dry land. To his crew, he’s unsinkable, but as soon as he’s alone, he reveals his age. An actor of Hanks’s caliber can make us feel the weight of every lost soul under his command, while still understanding the trust his crew places in him. It’s reasonable to focus the story on the ship and its task, but the film could pad itself out with another scene or two between Krause and his crew. Hanks has palpable chemistry with his second in command, Charlie Cole (Stephen Graham), who we learn even less about, so it could have benefited from a friendly, character-building scene between battles.
Schneider offers an intriguing subplot throughout, implying that Krause’s command is wavering, as if he’s not cut out for the task at hand, but leaves this thread dangling by the end of it. Sideways glances from his crew, and Krause’s inability to remember his sailors’ names, suggest a commander who’s losing control of his ship – or worse, his mind. Yes, some lives are inevitably lost, but we never hear a voice other than Krause’s to know if he is in the right or wrong. “What you did yesterday got us to today”, Stephen Graham says at one point, but it’s not clear if he truly believes in what he’s saying, or simply telling the captain what he wants to hear. Throwing in a subplot akin to Kubrick’s underrated Paths of Glory, in which the commanding officers lead their men to certain doom, is hardly something new for military films, but it would at least provide some additional drama aside from the next inevitable attack.
Greyhound marks Hanks’s fourth foray into the hell of World War II (Saving Private Ryan as an actor, and Band of Brothers and The Pacific as a producer). Clearly he finds an interest not only in the time period, but in the stories to be told from the people that lived through it. Dunkirk, 1917, and even Mad Max: Fury Road are all recent examples of successful war films that eschewed character development for action, so one can’t necessarily fault Hanks or Schneider for charting this course. But, like the dialogue, the action becomes too repetitive by the end to stand apart. There are only so many ways to depict attacking enemy submarines without getting stale. Regardless, I felt everything the film wanted me to feel: despair when something goes wrong, exhilaration when victory is achieved (the sweeping score by Blake Neely surely helped contribute). The victory ultimately feels a little hollow though, as we should ideally be cheering for Krause, the only character we’ve come close to knowing.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.