The history of World War II continues to be fertile ground for film writers and directors. With Greyhound, actor-screenwriter Tom Hanks and director Aaron Schneider show their deep respect for military heroes. The Apple TV+ film is a fictional re-enactment of Commander Ernie Krause (Hanks) and his crew aboard an American destroyer, the USS Keeling, codenamed Greyhound. Along with two companion British destroyers, the Greyhound battles German U-boats as they escort a merchant ship convoy across the “Black Pit” of the Atlantic Ocean. The ominous nickname signifies the void of military aircraft protection in this zone, as sonar, compasses, periscopes, ammunition and communication devices are as vital to this battle as the brave Navy seamen. Hanks wrote the screenplay as an adaption of C.S. Forester’s 1955 war novel The Good Shepherd, and attempts to engulf audience members in the same cold psychological sea of distress that all naval officers endured during the Battle of the Atlantic. While this tour of duty is engaging, Greyhound’s inability to venture further into the depths of wartime psychology leaves it susceptible to being forgotten just as quickly as it emerged.
Krause is a newly appointed commander who doesn’t rise to the top of military echelon at lightning speed. Rather, viewers learn that his recent promotion comes after a few stumbles. Hesitancy dwells within and around Krause. Even his lady love, Evelyn (Elisabeth Shue), hesitates to accept his proposal of marriage before he goes off to sea. Krause is a flawed yet quick-thinking leader who ultimately proves himself on this first passage across the Atlantic. Compounding the anxieties of inexperience are the juxtaposition of his wartime duty with a deep faith and respect for all life. Krause zig-zags the Greyhound to evade the torpedoes as he similarly does battle with self-doubts and moral conflicts. Krause is the “Good Shepherd” to his crew, always mannerly, appreciative and forgiving. Hanks, being an unflappable nice guy on and off the screen, is a natural for this role. Beyond dictating directional and attack orders, much of Hanks’ delivery consists of facial grimaces, stressed eyes and folded hands. In the midst of a WWII battle, it is rather refreshing when Krause finally shouts “Give them hell, Dicky,” cheering on one of the British destroyers accompanying the Greyhound as the Dicky attacks the U-boat. Hanks is quite a contrast to the leading actors of past Navy films like Robert Mitchum (The Enemy Below ) and John Wayne (In Harm’s Way), both of whom exhibited a sense of bravado and patriotic fervor as commanding officers.
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With Hanks’ lead performance always front and center stage, there is a missed opportunity to fully employ the acting prowess of a well-rounded cast. Particularly underutilized are Stephen Graham (The Irishman, Boardwalk Empire) as Charlie Cole and Karl Glusman (The Neon Demon, Nocturnal Animals) as the sonar operator Eppstein. Plus, Krause’s brief exchanges with Evelyn are rather forgettable. More time and attention falls upon the slippers and miniature battleship which are Evelyn’s gifts to him. This is in contrast to The Good Shepherd, in which the author details their complicated relationship. The interaction of Krause and George Cleveland (Rob Morgan) as head chef is well developed and reminiscent of the bond between Batman and Alfred in Batman Begins. Their exchanges are a welcome contrast to the almost robotic nature of the dialogue between Krause and other member of his crew, even if it is realistic. While the laser focus on the commander is consistent with the novel, it is disappointing that Hanks doesn’t present a rich array of supporting characters in the same manner as his HBO collaboration with Steven Spielberg, Band of Brothers. The Greyhound character with the most animated personality is the taunting radio voice (Thomas Kretschmann) of the U-boat named Grey Wolf. Yet, this feature almost becomes too much of a good thing. The addition of scenes inside the U-boats would have been welcome spice to this otherwise bland serving of mostly tactical commands.
The biggest factor that keeps Greyhound from being a genre standout is the predictable nature of Schneider’s direction and Shelly Johnson’s cinematography. The establishing shots are rather generic and better suited for a television series than a dramatic film. This television quality is most noticeable during the day to evening transitions. The introduction of the German U-boat is a lost opportunity as well. Reminiscent of the dorsal fin seen throughout Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), Johnson initially shows no more than the conning tower of the U-boats. Soundtrack composer Blake Neely blends in a ghoulishly eerie, banshee-like shriek into the mix, yet Greyhound falls short in delivering the suspense and excitement that abounds in Jaws. Ships sink and music of sorrow bubbles to the surface, but the money shot is so far away, and the screen text blip identifying what ship just sank feels inadequate.
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For the multitude of Hanks’ fans, watching Greyhound will be enjoyable. He is a masterful actor with tremendous universal appeal. But due to the film’s inability to make an early splash, mostly because of its safe screenplay and cinematography, Greyhound‘s Oscar chances will be nothing but a brief pinging blip on the Academy’s radar. An Apple TV+ killer it is certainly not, and Hanks’ film career remains in safe harbor.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.