Greyhound movie review: Tom Hanks’ naval thriller struggles to stay afloat in WWII’s hell and high waters
Greyhound is not the movie to expect an Oscar-worthy Tom Hanks performance or an unflinching World War II portrait.
Tom Hanks and transportation have a troubled history, like two incompatible forces trying to one-up each other. In Cast Away, his plane crashes into the ocean leaving him stranded on an island. In Sully, birds cripple his plane's engines, forcing him to land it over the Hudson River. Captain Phillips sees his ship hijacked by Somali pirates, and Apollo 13 proves trouble follows him even in outer space. Putting Hanks in any mode of transport is almost as bad an idea as putting Liam Neeson in it. So when I heard his new film was called Greyhound, my immediate thought was poor Hanks must contend with the inter-city bus now. I was wrong: he is back on a ship, a World War II destroyer — and he must steer it to the limits of its functional possibility to survive the battle against Nazi submarines.
On his first wartime mission as commander of the USS Keeling (call sign: Greyhound), Captain Ernest Krause (Hanks) must lead a convoy of 37 Allied ships carrying soldiers and supplies across the Atlantic. For five days, the ships must make it past a treacherous stretch of water (ominously named the Black Pit) on their own, as it is beyond the range of air support. Hiding beneath the waters are German submarines waiting to torpedo this supply line between the United States and Europe. Hanks is shit out of luck on a ship out of luck.
As a dramatic prologue to the invasion of Normandy, the mission's significance is undeniable. There is also an added element of pressure with a first-time captain pitted against these seemingly insurmountable odds. Krause's struggles with self-doubt is there for everyone to see: he constantly prays for guidance; he second-guesses every decision; he is tired but cannot sleep, hungry but cannot eat. His self-doubt is also reflected in the eyes of his crew. But this is not The Caine Mutiny; they still follow orders, shouting and repeating them to exhaustion.
When Krause's unconventional tactics sink a German sub on their very first confrontation, his second-in-command Charlie Cole (Stephen Graham) tries to cheer him up: “What you did yesterday got us to today?” The crew knows it had as much to do with beginner's luck as a natural talent, but it gives them all belief. But as a crew member celebrates the deaths of "50 Krauts," Krause quietly laments the loss of "50 souls." For he is a man torn between his faith and duty, between dedication and exhaustion, between a showcase of outer confidence and inner self-doubt. In a key test of his mettle, we see him forced into a corner, forced to decide whether to rescue a handful of men from a sinking ship or ward off the next attack on the convoy.
Hanks wrote the screenplay based on CS Forester's 1955 novel The Good Shepherd. Designed as a narrative entirely dedicated to naval tactics, Greyhound often feels like the Battleship board-game come to life, as Krause and his crew try to track down and destroy enemy submarines. Moreover, director Aaron Schneider reduces war to a PG-friendly experience. Greyhound is a movie without too much blood or violence, and at the same time, without any sense of tragedy. When the flag-wrapped bodies of the dead are lowered into the waters, one of them gets stuck at the edge. The human cost of war is reflected in that single second of reluctance.
Considering Hanks adapted the story himself, you would think he would write more interesting dialogue for himself than mere naval-speak. The entire film becomes a repetitive cycle: a submarine appears on the radar, Hanks prays and gazes through different windows for direction, the crew echoes his instructions before a CGI battle ensues.
The set built on a decommissioned WWII-era destroyer gives a sense of authenticity to the claustrophobic drama that unfolds on the Greyhound. There is as much heart-stopping tension in listening to sonar pulses inside the ship as watching the torpedoes head towards it. The live-action aboard the ship however doesn't always blend with the CGI battle sequences with seamless precision, taking away some of their hair-trigger intensity.
The submarines go deep but the characters stay flat afloat — and Greyhound does not quite serve the Dunkirk-like immersive war experience to not be bothered by it. An out-of-nowhere flashback sequence reveals his girlfriend (Elisabeth Shue in a cameo appearance) rebuffed his marriage proposal but awaits his safe return. Graham and Rob Morgan (as messmate Cleveland) pop in and out, but their minuscule roles do not allow their talents to truly shine through. If the crew members other than Krause feel voiceless, the Nazis are faceless, embodied only by the taunting voice of "Grey Wolf," the leader of the U-boat wolf pack. You cannot help but imagine a Nazi with an eye-patch, the caricaturish antagonist for our hero to outwit.
With a 90-minute runtime, there is not of course a lot of room for multiple characters to have internal and external conflicts. So Schneider sticks to the shallows of the spectacle of war, rather than plumb any real dramatic depths. Once you understand that Greyhound is not the movie to expect an Oscar-worthy Tom Hanks performance or an unflinching WWII portrait, and accept it as just another digitised combat movie, it should be easier for that big tub of homemade popcorn to go down.
Greyhound is streaming on Apple TV+.
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