Apple TV Plus’ World War II drama Greyhound makes it clear early on why naval battles aren’t seen more often in cinema. Most war movies focus on soldiers on the ground, on immediate and often personal action. In naval battles, it’s difficult to convey urgency or speed. By virtue of their immense size, the warships in Greyhound don’t seem to be moving particularly quickly, and the German U-boats they’re trying to outmaneuver are largely invisible from the surface. Apart from a stray ripple in the waves the ships sail through, it can seem like they aren’t fighting anyone at all. Against all odds, director Aaron Schneider manages to convey a sense of urgency.
Greyhound’s key ingredient is its star, Tom Hanks. Since transitioning out of his boyish-Everyman phase, Hanks has found a niche playing sincere, competent men doing their jobs to the best of their ability, and his turn as Ernest Krause is no exception. Krause is a career sailor who crosses the North Atlantic for the first time in 1942 as the commander of the USS Keeling (call sign “Greyhound”). He has doubts about his fitness to command the ship, as the young men following his orders all have more combat experience than he does, but he has to put his concerns aside as he attempts to get a convoy of 37 Allied ships safely to their destination.
The whole journey is tense. The action swells when the U-boats draw close, but the convoy won’t actually be safe until the journey is complete, as is clear from the stress Krause is constantly facing. Hanks, who also wrote the script (his other scripts include That Thing You Do! and Larry Crowne), adapting C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd, maintains that tension through repetition. Most of the dialogue in Greyhound is repeated orders. When Krause orders a change in the direction of his ship’s rudder, it gets echoed down the line, as soldiers spring into action to make it happen. When he receives radar updates in return, they’re relayed through at least one middleman, with each person beginning to speak before the other has finished reporting. Something is always happening.
That constant repetition might seem boring, but Schneider and Hanks’ devotion to portraying marine warfare as faithfully as possible brings a streak of originality to a genre that’s more often characterized by explosions and action. There’s a bureaucracy to life on a warship that feels novel, as each action (a change in course, the firing of a missile) has to travel up or down the chain of command, rather than being an individual soldier’s prerogative. It’s especially apparent how difficult it is to command such a lumbering machine when the Greyhound is pit against speeding torpedoes. When time is of the essence, watching orders barked up and down the ship is almost painful — and painfully exciting.
Where the film falters, however, is in building a supporting cast around Hanks. Though veteran actors like Stephen Graham and Rob Morgan fill in the ranks, none of the characters besides Krause are on screen long enough to be more than vessels helping orders move along the line. (In Morgan’s case, this is a mixed blessing, as his role as a mess officer is one of the few things that clearly reference the racial politics of the time; his character’s primary duty is to ensure that Krause is fed. His relationship with Krause is just barely fleshed out beyond that.) Even Krause is a little thinly sketched. Apart from a couple of flashbacks that establish he has someone waiting for him to return home, Krause seems to exist solely on the Greyhound. Hanks’ star power and the steadfastness we’ve come to associate with him serve as a shorthand to fill in the blanks.
The naval warfare that comprises most of those blanks is well-executed, though, and a tense change of pace from what audiences have come to expect from on-screen combat. At just 91 minutes, the novelty of the order-passing action doesn’t have a chance to become tedious or repetitive, and the successes and failures hit hard not because the soldiers are so well fleshed-out, but because the mechanics that made them possible are so clear.
Given the focus on action, it’s a pity to see Greyhound premiere directly on Apple TV Plus, having been delayed from its intended June 12 theatrical release due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In an interview, Hanks described the change in release plans as “an absolute heartbreak,” noting the difference in picture and sound quality between watching something in theaters vs. watching at home or on a laptop. Greyhound’s greatest asset is its sense of spectacle, unfortunately somewhat diminished outside a theater setting. But Schneider and Hanks keep Greyhound compelling through detail, and through the sheer power of Hanks’ furrowed, determined brow.
Greyhound is streaming on Apple TV Plus now.
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