Sometimes a film is just so laser-focused on its subject matter that we don’t need to know the full backstories of the characters occupying the space in which it takes place. Of course, if you’re looking hard enough, you get all the information you need about the players without getting lost in the details.
For example, when we look at Commander Ernest Krause (played earnestly by Tom Hanks), we don’t have a lot to work with. But we do know a couple of things: we see him saying grace before a meal, so we know he’s a man of God, even though he never really talks about that. In addition, in the opening sequence of Greyhound, he meets Evelyn (Elisabeth Shue) in a hotel lobby to exchange Christmas gifts before he heads to sea during World War II. He makes it clear that he wants to marry her, but she’d rather wait until he returns safely and they actually have time to spend together. So we also know he has something to live for, something to inspire him to get home. What else do we need to know about him? Well, we’re curious if he’s a good commander, but I promise you, we find that out during the course of the film.
Based on the 1955 nautical war novel The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester (the same author who wrote The African Queen and the Horatio Hornblower books), Greyhound doesn’t have much interest in inflating the inherent drama of Krause and his crew as they lead an international convoy of 37 ships across the Atlantic to deliver troops and supplies to the Allied forces. The particularly long stretch of ocean where the vessels had no air cover was one of the most dangerous places on Earth at the time, as it was also home to fleets of German U-boats.
Certain crew members stand out, especially Stephen Graham as Krause’s right-hand man Charlie Cole, but the point of the film is that the crew worked as a tight-knit unit, so no man was meant to seem exceptional. The dialogue (Hanks wrote the screenplay) is primarily Hanks giving orders and the crew responding with feedback and intel, and yet somehow this is all that is required to keep the tension level quite elevated the entirety of the 90-minute film. There’s an interesting connection Krause seems to have with the mess hall chef Cleveland (the terrific Rob Morgan, one of the only Black characters in the film) that pays off later when the Greyhound is damaged in an attack. I’m not sure the emotional payoff quite lands, but it’s an admirable effort, I suppose.
The U-boats have some advantages but Krause’s ship, the Greyhound, and the others charged with protecting the supply ships also have a few tricks, including temperamental radar and poor communications between the fleet and Admiralty using fairly primitive radio and manual cryptography. But someone these Navy boats made it work, and it’s impressive watching how the crew found workarounds to every technical snafu.
Director Aaron Schneider (helming his first film since 2009’s Get Low, one of my favorites from that year) does an impressive job conveying the sense of physical and mental exhaustion that everyone is experiencing (Krause is on his feet so long, they begin to bleed), and composer Blake Neely (who scores most of the CW’s DC superhero shows and “Riverdale”) provides a terrifying sonic backdrop that sometimes sounds like whales charging and fighting each other. The cumulative is that the various sea-going vessels sound like animals attacking each other. I’ve seen some complain about poor visual effects, but honestly they didn’t bother me, especially the treacherous ways the ships cut across the waves in an attempt to avoid torpedoes. If subpar special effects are your worst complaint about Greyhound, you aren’t paying attention.
At this point, why do we even bother to point out that Tom Hanks is good in a particular role? Of course he is. But listening to him recite dialogue that he wrote, there’s an extra layer of intensity that creeps into his performances that really drew me in. The nautical and wartime jargon trips off his tongue like he’s been speaking it all his life, and even if you don’t understand it all, the context and response to it gets the point across clearly. The level of authenticity here is impressive and adds much to the film’s propulsive movement. There no sense that Krause is exceptional—and that’s intentional. He’s doing exactly what was expected of him or anyone else in command of a mission like this, and that makes him—and the movie—all the more impressive.
The film debuts Friday, exclusively on Apple TV+.
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