In a piece he wrote for Empire Magazine about his new film Greyhound (which he both scripted and stars in), Tom Hanks explained his continuing fascination with stories about WWII, saying they touch upon timeless issues of “heartbreak and worries of I don’t know.” Inadvertently, Hanks may’ve also pinpointed the biggest problem with the project: it’s more interested in teaching viewers about Naval warfare and the challenges of early radar than exploring its protagonist’s self-doubt and insecurities. And while the movie’s sea battles are elegantly staged by cinematographer-turned director Aaron Schneider (helming his second feature here, more than ten years after his acclaimed debut with Get Low), the absence of a compelling character throughline makes it difficult to become emotionally invested in their outcome. What you end up with is a better history lesson than drama, in spite of the obvious care with which Hanks brings the story of Greyhound to life.
Adapted from C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd, the film stars Hanks as Ernest Krause, a seasoned Naval officer who’s granted command of the destoyer USS Keeling (call sign Greyhound) shortly after the U.S. enters WWII. Tasked with leading a group of Allied ships across the North Atlantic, it falls to Krause and his men to protect the vessels from the wolfpack of German U-boats hot on their tails. As they enter the Mid-Atlantic Gap aka. the Black Pit (an unprotected area beyond the reach of the RAF’s aircraft), the Greyhound’s crew must not only battle their enemies, but also the treacherous conditions of the ocean and the sheer exhaustion of staying on their feet as they race non-stop to make it to the other side of the Pit before they’ve overwhelmed.
Unlike Forester’s novel, Greyhound barely scatches the surface of who Krause even is, much less touches upon his backstory. There are nods to him being devout and the woman he loves (Elisabeth Shue, sadly wasted here), but otherwise the film struggles to dig beneath his stoic exterior. His inexperience – a major element of Forester’s book – is instead presented as a late reveal meant to reframe the narrative, but the lack of setup robs it of any real impact. With so much of the movie devoted to showing how a WWII-era warship operates, there’s little room for development when it comes to the supporting players either, which is a shame given the great actors in the cast (Stephen Graham, Rob Morgan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). Both Saving Private Ryan and the Hanks-produced Band of Brothers and The Pacific miniseries showed it’s possible to balance attention to historical detail with captivating stories about officers overcoming various psychological and physical hurdles in WWII, but Greyhound is too fixated on the former, to its detriment.
At the same time, Hanks has clearly done his research, as evidenced by the sheer amount of Naval jargon in his script. That sense of verisimilitude is further enhanced by Schneider and his team’s work behind the camera. A significant chunk of Greyhound was shot on a pair of real-life vessels (the HMCS Montréal and USS Kidd), allowing it to readily approximate the cramped sensation of being aboard an antiquated destroyer. The action sequences are equally tight and engaging, with Schneider and his DP Shelly Johnson (no stranger to WWII, having shot Captain America: The First Avenger) painting the spectacle in appropriately chilly hues of grey, black, and blue, and Blake Neely’s riveting score serving as accompaniment. It’s only when the film’s actors are placed against the CGI backdrop of the Black Pit that Greyhound‘s budgetary limits begin to show, even with the added realism of water continuously splashing the camera lens.
To its credit, Greyhound more or less does what Hanks feels good WWII stories ought to do: encouraging people to not give up in the darkest of times, even when they’re pushed to the point of exhaustion. It’s a simple message, but certainly one that’s relevant for anyone who’s just trying to make it out of 2020 in one piece. Still, it’s readily apparent why Sony delayed Greyhound more than a year from its original release date in March 2019 before sending it over to Apple in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic: it’s not a strong enough character piece to compete in awards season, but it’s also too terminology-heavy and docudrama-like to fully work as a summer thriller. Under the circumstances, though, it’s decent enough to merit a watch if you already have an Apple TV+ subscription… or, like Hanks, just can’t seem to get enough WWII pop culture in general.
Greyhound is now streaming on Apple TV+. It is 91 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for war-related action/violence and brief strong language.