Tom Hanks admirably buoys a lean, but sloppy WWII naval thriller too sincere to sell its simplicity.
As movie theaters remain in an uncertain limbo in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re in a strange golden age of summer films coming straight to streaming. In any other world, Greyhound would be a perfect movie for the Dads to spend a lovely weekend at the movies: a lean, unpretentious WWII thriller starring Tom Hanks that valorizes sensitive, stoic manhood. Unfortunately, a nasty little virus (and our country’s shameful inability to take the measures we need to control it) has pulled this one in from the majesty of theatrical releases and onto streaming, courtesy of Apple TV+. Strangely, that may end up being the perfect context to see Greyhound, a movie almost a little too proud of its minimalism.
Much of that is due to the screenplay, written by Hanks and adapted from the novel The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester. In keeping with Forester’s own eye to maritime specificity (and the dog after which the central ship, the USS Keeling, is nicknamed), Greyhound is deceptively lean on plot and high on details — effectively a naval procedural. Recounting the tale of Commander Ernest Krause’s (Hanks) first route escorting a fleet of merchant ships across the Atlantic to supply troops during the Second World War, Greyhound focuses resolutely on Krause’s command of the Keeling during the 50-hour stretch where the fleet has no air cover and German U-boats wait in the wings to take down any ship that crosses their path.
Apart from a couple of fleeting flashbacks to show what Krause’s waiting for back home (his soon-to-be-betrothed, played by a refreshingly age-appropriate Elisabeth Shue), Greyhound is almost entirely set in the corridors and on the deck of the titular vessel. Director Aaron Schneider (whose last film was 2009’s Get Low) keeps the action moving along, especially for a film that’s in and out at 80 minutes — he and Hanks have to mine a lot of tension out of young, scared sailors reading out numbers and peering through binoculars, and for the most part, it succeeds.
There’s a particular kind of action vocabulary to the nautical thriller, from Das Boot to Hunt for Red October, and Greyhound does its level best to match that sense of detail-oriented suspense. Amid the shroud of fog and the crash of waves, all the audience has to go on is the same as the sailors’; sonar readings, halting communication to the captain, educated guesswork as to what ping is what. Which is all well and good, as the actual CG for the ships is admirable but imperfect — Schneider smartly keeps the spectacle to a mininum, keeping us a fly on the wall for the cramped quarters of our hero ship.
At the center of it all is Hanks himself, Krause feeling like the vessel into which the star/writer pours all of his notions about a kind of old-fashioned, sensitive masculinity. He’s kind to his men; he stops to thank them whenever he can, even in the midst of battle. His performance is suffused with all kinds of small gestures — the little glimmer of doubt that washes over an otherwise resolute face, the small sigh of relief as everyone celebrates around them when they sink an enemy ship.
A movie almost a little too proud of its minimalism.
Hanks is all too aware of his cultural position as America’s Dad, and Krause reads like Mr. Rogers, Captain Miller from Saving Private Ryan, and Captain Phillips tossed into a blender and given a Bible. Krause even bookends the film with a dressing/undressing ritual not unlike Fred Rogers himself, with a sprinkling of innocuously-wholesome Christian prayer on top. He’s a devout, humble, uncomplicated man, Greyhound turning Hanks’ innate warmth into a character study of a kind soul resolved to do his job, even if that means doing battle against his fellow man. Krause is a little too uncomplicated as a man to make for any showy histrionics, but Hanks anchors the film with quiet dignity.
For all of Hanks’ innate watchability and the efficiency of its presentation, however, Greyhound‘s journey is far from smooth sailing. The scripts’ laser focus on Keane — his struggle to reconcile his lack of confidence with his need to be strong for his men — leaves the rest of the men in short shrift. We only see a few familiar faces, like Stephen Graham‘s right-hand man and Rob Morgan‘s criminally-underserved ship’s mess officer. (The optics of the only major Black character in a 2020 film dressed like a butler are, woof.) This is a film about the specific set of virtues expected of white men of a certain (greatest) generation, and it’s disappointing that others — Morgan and Shue, in particular — aren’t extended the same courtesy.
The rest are fresh-faced newbies who try to eke out some tension from delivering coordinates, but simply don’t get enough screentime for us to care when something happens to them. Late in the film, Krause stares ominously at the bloodstains left behind by an injured radar officer; the crew of the Keeling is likewise abstracted. And then there’s the German U-boat captain, the “Grey Wolf,” whose voice taunts Krause and krew over the radar in a cartoonish attempt to manifest a concrete villain for our hero to overcome.
Ultimately, these concerns feel immaterial to Greyhound‘s true goal, which is to use lean, well-staged naval action to illustrate the story of one man’s inner war against himself. It’s remarkably subtle stuff, almost to the film’s detriment; this may be the rare 80-minute film that could use a bit more fleshing out. But as a vehicle for Hanks’ ability to make even the most stoic of characters feel lived in and compelling, it manages to fulfill its brief, and even makes a case for war films to go small.
Greyhound pulls into harbor on Apple TV+ July 10th.
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