A thrilling war film that leans into authenticity, if at the cost of characterization
Tom Hanks has become fascinated over his career on the historical periods of human excellence, and specifically American excellence in WWII and afterwards. Not only was he the protagonist of films touting the human resilience during these years (Saving Private Ryan (1998), Forrest Gump (1994)), but as a producer he’s brought incredible material revendicating human goodness in the world. Such is the case with his award-winning series on WWII: Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010), or the birth of the United States through John Adams (2008); he’s even tried his hand at producing documentary series with CNN’s great decades series (The Sixties (2014), The Seventies (2015), etc.). Thus, it was not a surprise to see him explore a naval captain in WWII in his latest film, of which he stars and wrote the screenplay.
Greyhound (2020) is the second Apple TV+ Original film, after the silent debut of the controversial The Banker (2019). In this most recent film, the title refers to the eponymous ship that Captain Krause (Tom Hanks) commandeers for the US Navy. It is February 1942, and Krause is tasked with protecting supply ships as the travel from the US’s East Coast to Liverpool, England. However, there is a period of over 60 hours, in which the convoy of ships will be without air support and at the mercy of German U-boats. It is here that the “USS Greyhound” will be put to work, and its first-time captain put to the test.
Tom Hanks’ screenplay looks to dive right into the world of the US Navy, there are no speeches of exposition eschewing the stakes, only simple opening text describing the objective of the mission. We get a brief flashback of Krause’s past, where he has a sweetheart (Elizabeth Shue) waiting for him, but aside from that, the action starts from the get-go. I’m one that really appreciates full dives into what an actual military situation would look like, and Greyhound chooses to show the procedural aspects and non-filtered naval terminology as it was. An average viewer can navigate the terminology fairly easy enough, however, thus it doesn’t detract from viewer enjoyment. In that sense, the film reminded me strongly of Crimson Tide (1995), which also was not shy of being completely authentic with the military procedures shown. Even if one is a bit amiss, there is a great cinematography from Shelly Johnson that helps situate oneself in the situation of the ships. Director Aaron Schneider (this only his second film, first in 11 years) is able to hold an insane amount of tension for nearly half of the film, leaving viewers sweating on their sofas. The narrative slows down towards the middle, letting the audience and characters take stock of what’s happened, but soon we step into the finale and are once again shoved in white-knuckle situations.
Like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), Hanks and Schneider smartly never show the Germans’ faces, allowing an invisible enemy instead of nationality or ideology. Both of these films help carry the point that the real horror in the narratives comes from the act of war and not specific individuals. This sense of dread from an unknown mass is cleverly aided by the fact that we usually only see fathoms of water around “USS Greyhound,” thus making a literal “invisible enemy.” The haunting score from Blake Neely also prods us in a situation of both tension and foreboding.
Hanks and Schneider are able to explore split-second decisions regarding morality and duty, and while I would have appreciated a further inquiry in these cases, they largely do their job at bringing such themes to the fore. Where the film lags behind is in the depth that it brings its characters. Krause is largely formed thanks to his minor flashback scene and a stellar Hanks, who gives him an aura of kindness with strict respect; however, the rest of the cast is largely left to their own devices. Rob Morgan plays a mess hall worker, and the aspects of the racial segregation in the US military is only hinted at, but never fully shown. Likewise, Stephen Graham plays the second to Hanks’ Krause, and one can see him frustratingly bursting to bring some distinction and depth to his character. As the film drew to a close, I was rather surprised at how short it was (only over 1 hr. and 30 mins) and was a little disappointed that in all its restraint for authenticity it didn’t take advantage to show the clash of humanity with that of military duty. There are hints of this moral confrontation, but only fleeting and seeming to reference viewers to other material instead.
In the end, Greyhound is a fairly satisfying war film. The tension at the high seas and the duel between Krause and the U-boats help keep a brutal tension alive for the majority of the film. Meanwhile, the authenticity pursued by Hanks in his screenplay and Schneider in his directing is to be greatly respected and adds a notable air of legitimacy to the entire film. However, Greyhound may suffer from going too strictly to the point and putting aside characterization and psychological explorations of war. Nevertheless, the film does its job and does it well. This proves to be a win for Apple TV+ and keeps Hanks’ admiration of The Greatest Generation alive and well.