Film Review – Greyhound
Tom Hanks’ fascination with WWII continues with Greyhound (2020). This time, he plays Captain Ernest Krause, commander of a U.S. battleship assigned to help escort a shipment of supplies across the North Atlantic to England. The aid is essential in helping stop the Nazi invasion. However, the mission proves to be tremendously dangerous as his boat – as well as the other Allied ships – come face to face with German U-boats set on taking them down.
Directed by Aaron Schneider and written by Hanks (adapting C.S. Forester’s novel, “The Good Shepherd”), the film traces the few perilous days in which the convoy is most vulnerable. The U.S. Navy have withdrawn air support, transitioning cover to the British. This leaves the convoy as sitting ducks, with Krause and the other commanders solely responsible for the safety of all. Once the Germans are discovered and mount their attack, the narrative shifts in to full on high sea warfare – a non-stop cat and mouse game where Krause tries to locate the enemy in bad weather before a torpedo comes whizzing his way.
If you’re into lean, fast-paced, tactical war films where the strategy of battle plays as the main character, then this is right up your alley. Hanks’ screenplay and Schneider’s direction shape the narrative in a very direct approach, focusing almost entirely on Krause shouting orders in the midst of an attack. In this regard, the film works – for the most part. There is ample tension, especially in the beginning when Krause first runs into German forces. The ship’s ability to locate the U-boats is largely based on sonar, with characters having to listen closely for the slightest underwater sound. This makes good use of the “fear of what you don’t see” idea of filmmaking.
The biggest issue with Greyhound is that this style is all that it has to offer. The constant barrage of non-stop action, military jargon, and war strategy tires the narrative out. What starts out as intense, high octane tension fizzles quickly as we realize the film has nothing else going for it. The approach becomes desperately tiresome, repetitive to a fault. We see this in the dialogue, which mostly features Krause ordering his men to turn the boat left, turn the boat right, pinpoint the direction and distance of the target, fire when ready, and them repeating the order verbatim. I’m sure this is an accurate depiction of how military orders are carried out in real life, but on screen it dissipates the tension. The crew is made up of nameless faces, acting like robots with no unique character traits. We see nothing of the other ships in the convoy outside of voices spoken over radio, and the Germans are just a mysterious presence that magically appears whenever the story requires them to. As soon as Krause sinks one enemy U-boat another one pops up in its place.
It’s a testament to Tom Hanks’ skill and charisma that he is able to keep our attention with a character we barely know anything about. He has always been good at playing men of integrity, and Hanks supplies Krause with that persona. But outside of him praying by his bedside every morning and night, Krause comes off as a blank slate. I wonder if Hanks and Schneider sensed this, because they open with a short prologue between Krause and his love interest, Evelyn (a wasted Elisabeth Shue). Their interaction is meant to give Krause some depth and elevate his personal stakes, but it ends up feeling like an add on, trying to fill the gaps in character development.
The physical composition of the battleship is limited. This isn’t to say that set needed to be lavishly designed, but the visual presentation provides little ingenuity. The spacing within the ship’s bridge is so confined that the camera frame only shoots characters in close up. We follow Krause as he paces around, passing by the same people and locations over and over again. In certain sequences, Krause will look out one side of the ship, walk through the bridge to the other side and then repeat. At a certain point Hanks walked back and forth through the same corridor so often that it almost became funny. Because the plot is so thin, you can transpose one action scene with another and it would barely cause any issues with narrative flow.
Watching Greyhound, I couldn’t help thinking of another nautical thriller, Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide (1995). What made the latter so effective was that it took the time to flesh out the characters and amplify their contrasting ideals. When the action took place, we understood everyone’s perspective and what motivated their decisions. That is not the case here. Krause is seen as a good guy because that is what he’s supposed to be, and because he is played by arguably one of the nicest guys in Hollywood. This is action without substance – a surface level fireworks display.