The Only Thing More Dangerous Than the Front Lines Was the Fight to Get There
1942: The United States has entered World War II, and as the Battle of the Atlantic rages, countless civilian ships pour into the UK laden with men and materiel. The convoys are lightly protected by armed military escorts, such as the destroyer USS Keeling, under first-time commander Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks). En route to Liverpool, Krause’s convoy enters ‘the Black Pit’: the middle stretch of the Atlantic Ocean where they will be out of range of air. There, the German U-boat wolfpacks are waiting …
Look, maybe it’s my rapidly advancing years talking. I’ve always had an appreciation for muscular, no-nonsense military thrillers, but recently I’ve come to enjoy them even more. I couldn’t tell you why without way too many billable hours on the psychiatrist’s couch. Or perhaps it’s just a natural process: you hit your mid-40s, your beard goes grey, your knees twinge, and you start looking for movies where Gregory Peck or Jimmy Stewart take on the might of the Axis military, or whatever the modern equivalent is. I recently sang the praises of Roland Emmerich’s Midway louder than pretty much anyone else who saw it, and I’m here to do the same for Greyhound.
Greyhound (the title is taken from the Keeling’s radio callsign) is directed by Aaron Schneider, Get Low (2009), with admirable efficiency and a classical lack of showiness, but its script is the more interesting element in its DNA, having been written by Hanks himself, adapted from the 1955 C.S. Forester novel, The Good Shepherd. Forester, the creator of Napoleonic-era hero Horatio Hornblower, is pretty much the father of the naval novel (no Hornblower, no Aubrey, and Maturin, that’s for damn sure), and his trademark mix of painstaking accuracy and stirring adventure is all present and correct here. In his role as screenwriter, Hanks gives us a tense, terse, thriller shorn of all but the most vital events, with the whole thing clocking in at an efficient 91 minutes. That’s including a bit of character-setting business at the top end with Elisabeth Shue as Krause’s would-be fiancée, who refuses his proposal just before he heads off for duty.
That aside, the rest of the film is a tightly ratcheted naval adventure, with the untested Krause trying to outwit the German submarines harrying his convoy and sending taunting messages over the wireless. The film digs deep into the tactical pragmatism required to survive the voyage, and we get a keen sense of the kind of brutal triage necessary to fight such a running battle: what ships can be risked to ensure the best outcome, what are the probabilities of success and how can they be improved, and countless other split-second but vital decisions, with Hanks’ trademark amiable humanity being battered by the choices he is forced to make.
Hanks is, of course, great, and while ‘he could do this kind of thing in his sleep’ is a fair if uncharitable take on his work here, we can agree, surely, that few actors can do this kind of thing as well as he does. Here he plays a man on the brink of exhaustion as he is forced to stay at his post over the course of the two-day chase, and while the film spends little time on overt characterization, Hanks milks the quiet moments effectively to give us insight into Krause’s inner workings, even as the character himself maintains a stiff upper lip in front of his men.
Every other character is either thinly or efficiently sketched, depending on how much you think the ensemble in a thing like this needs to be fleshed out, but a few familiar faces stand out, including Stephen Graham, Snatch (2000), as Krause’s navigator, and Rob Morgan, Mudbound (2017), as mess attendant George Cleveland, a character that allows the film to make a couple of quiet observations on the racial make-up of the WWII navy. Everyone else is pretty much on hand to look determined, desperate, frightened, and occasionally dead, depending on where we are in the story — but let’s face it, that’s all they need to do.
Indeed, that’s a plus. Like its namesake, Greyhound lives or dies by its speed and dexterity. Workmanlike staging from director Aaron Schneider lacks flourish, but it also means the film’s style never gets in the way of its drama, and while some CGI vistas are just a tad unconvincing at times, that’s an easily forgivable flaw. This is a brisk, stirring, old-fashioned WWII cracker, and if that’s your thing, you are gonna have a fine time serving under Captain Hanx.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson