Cast: Tom Hanks, Stephen Graham, Rob Morgan, Elisabeth Shue
Director: Aaron Schneider
Writer: Tom Hanks
Throughout his long, varied career there is a particular kind of character that Tom Hanks has been consistently drawn to, especially as he’s gotten older. Whether he’s being taken hostage by Somali pirates in Captain Phillips, negotiating a trade between the two great powers of the Cold War in Bridge of Spies, or landing a passenger plane in the middle of the Hudson River in Sully, Hanks’ later career has seen him returning time and time again to the role of the stoic, hyper-competent professional performing his duty in extraordinary circumstances. These characters all embody what is perhaps the single most prevalent theme in the star’s entire filmography, the virtue of everyday heroism. So long as Hanks’ protagonists can keep their heads, focus on the tasks at hand, and trust in their abilities and judgement and whatever greater forces may be guiding them, they’ll make it out on the other side all right. It’s a persona he has been building since as early as Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan and it is one that has spilled over into real life as many have come to regard him as ‘America’s Dad’. When he relayed the news of his COVID-19 diagnosis to the world earlier this year, enough people were impressed by the warmth and composure he continued to exude that they were compelled to start paying attention to the virus and prepare for its impending arrival.
In Greyhound, Hanks assumes a role that was literally written just for him (it helps to be the screenwriter). Ernest Krause is a career navy man who, just as the USA is entering the Second World War in 1942, has been entrusted with his first command over a vessel. The USS Keeling, or ‘Greyhound’, is the destroyer that has been tasked with safeguarding a convoy of 37 Allied ships across the Atlantic Ocean. As well as navigating the turbulent waters, Krause and his crew must remain on guard for the German U-boats that are intent on stopping them from reaching their destination. Without the protection of the air force, it is up to the Greyhound and the three other Allied escorts accompanying her to counter any ambushes they meet and protect the cargo and crewmen under their watch. Krause, despite his seniority, has never before commanded a ship, never mind a convoy, nor has he been right in the thick of combat. In many ways he’s just as green as the many young recruits under his charge. While he harbours his own doubts about his ability to see the convoy safely to Europe, Krause understands his objective and what’s at stake, he knows the ship and and its protocols, and he has a crew awaiting his instructions. The rest is up to a higher power.
The movie’s bread and butter is the minutiae of naval warfare; in a trim 90-minute runtime, Hanks and Schneider dedicate themselves towards depicting the hands-on reality of life on an Allied warship as faithfully as possible. While the idea sounds dull on paper, the film wrings some real tension out of its depiction of a well-practised bureaucratic machine in constant motion. Nobody has the time to relax or catch their breath on the Greyhound, there are radars and engines to be monitored, observations to be recorded, manoeuvres to be calculated, updates to be relayed, and orders to be relayed back. When Krause has an instruction for one of his men, it gets passed on from soldier to soldier like a game of Chinese telephone until it reaches the man who needs to hear it. When he needs to hear updates from the radar in real time, they’re passed over the radio to a middleman who has to immediately repeat them verbatim before he’s even heard the full report. Every second matters when there’s a U-boat on your tail, which means there is absolutely no time for pauses. The film never lets up from the moment Krause takes the deck, and it is genuinely quite exciting to watch each of the cogs of this well-oiled machine turning in place to keep this lumbering vessel moving.
The film is so intensely focused on showcasing this, in fact, that little room is allowed for the characters to make any kind of impression on the viewer. It’s one thing when you have an accomplished movie star like Hanks or veteran character actors like Stephen Graham and Rob Morgan in the roles; there are a lot of blanks you can fill in for yourself through inference. The majority of the cast however is made of young, fit, white men who all more or less play the same character. Even when granted singular moments to do something besides repeating an order, they still blend so interchangeably into one another that they barely even register as individuals, never mind characters. Krause has what is by far the biggest presence in the film, and even he hardly amounts to more than a one-note take on the archetype that Hanks often plays. There are one or two flashbacks with Elisabeth Shue as his wife and the recurring motif of a gift she gives that try to convince us of a life that exists beyond the nuts and bolts of the ship, but if anything they detract more from the film than they add. A movie without these scenes that simply restricted itself to the events on the ship would at least have kept things tighter and might even have allowed for some of the minor roles to be fleshed out a little.
There is still something to be said for a straightforward, well-executed naval war film that sustains its tension for the entire duration. More the pity then that Greyhound was unable to open in theatres as originally planned. Watching the battle scenes on your TV or on a computer screen, one can only imagine how much differently the spectacle would have played on the big screen. The immense scale of the 350-ft. Destroyer and the enormous breadth of the Atlantic Ocean, the thunderous sounds of waves crashing against the hull of the ship and the deafening booms of torpedo explosions, the nail-biting suspense that occurs when the Greyhound shoots its target and waits to see if they made a hit; it just doesn’t strike you in the same way when the performance of its picture and sound are subject to your broadband speed and the quality of your headphones. None of this is to be held against the film of course, Schneider and his team couldn’t ever have predicted the turn that 2020 would take, it’s just unfortunate. Greyhound is by its own merits a solid and gripping, if otherwise thin and unengaging, film held together by a keen attention to detail that lends authenticity without giving way to tedium and by Hanks’ natural and ever welcome screen presence.