Well, somebody’s been brushing up on their naval jargon. Tom Hanks actually wrote the screenplay for the WWII maritime thriller Greyhound, adapting it from C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd, and the film is so packed with commands repeated and nautical terms and naval minutiae that you’d be forgiven for thinking it had been penned by a retired admiral. This is, by and large, a good thing: Greyhound (which hits Apple TV+ this week) won’t blow any holes in the solemn ship of state that is modern cinema — it’s a sweet, swift 91 minutes long, and only about 80 if you skip the credits — but it’s a surprisingly immersive affair, and the authenticity writer-star Hanks and director Aaron Schneider bring to it is a huge part of its appeal. (Let’s give plenty of credit to Forester, too: I haven’t read the novel, but since he also wrote the Captain Horatio Hornblower series, it’s fair to assume he knew his stuff.)
The film takes place in 1942, during the Battle of the Atlantic, not long after the U.S.’s entry into the war, and follows the lead destroyer (call sign: “Greyhound”) in a quartet of warships escorting a 37-vessel convoy headed to Liverpool, England. Fighter planes and their flight ranges at the time being what they are, the ships only have air support at the beginning of the trip and at the end; the vast stretch of ocean they cross in between is known as “the Black Pit,” and it’s filled with German U-boats intent on sinking them (and, occasionally, taunting them). Hanks’s Captain Krause has just been given his first solo assignment in charge of a warship, so this is all new to him — but of course, he mustn’t show his doubt or fear.
In that sense, the machinery of command, with its bureaucracy and heavily regimented processes, becomes something of a lifeline for him. Krause has to be a cog in a wheel, even though he is the biggest cog there. We see how everything he says to his men is repeated by others, the orders moving down the line as if they were the word of God. We also see all the other stuff he has to deal with, from the fuel reporting paperwork to managing the ship’s depth charge stockpiles. The film clearly loves all that detail. Who has to leave a room when the captain is being given a report? When do you switch out your hat for a helmet? What determines whether a sonar works properly or not? We also get loving close-ups of the machines and knobs and other doodads that the sailors have to work with. (This is prime Dad material; Hanks even changes out of his boots and into slippers at one point.)
Such attention to detail can occasionally backfire, too — as the details can take over from the characters. We get a lot of Krause, but we don’t get much of a sense of the rest of the crew, aside maybe from Stephen Graham as the second-in-command and Rob Morgan, doing a lot with very little, as the head chef. (Hanks’s rapper son Chet Hanks is apparently in this thing too, but I couldn’t make him out among the anonymous sea of youngish faces.) Meanwhile, a framing device and some occasional flashbacks involving Krause and the woman he loves (played by Elisabeth Shue) come off as particularly generic in light of the rest of the film’s authenticity. And the various transmissions that arrive via the ship’s radio have a weirdly cartoonish feel to them, as if they were rushed in post. The German sub goofily taunting the Americans, even mock-wailing at various points, I can buy, but we also hear some hilariously stiff-upper-lip British officers on the radio, and suddenly it feels like we’ve been yanked out of this otherwise fully realized world into an awkward role-playing game. But these are mostly minor issues.
Greyhound is at its best when we see how the otherwise efficient naval process bends, and the effects that individual choices have on it. Krause has to make lots of life-and-death decisions: whether to stick with the convoy or to pursue a sub that’s attacked them; whether to stop and gather the survivors of a ship that went down or rush to the aid of another besieged vessel. He also has to live with the consequences of those decisions, which sometimes conflict with his humanity (and, as the film makes clear, his Christianity). Looking over the oil slick left on the surface of the ocean from the first sub he destroys, Krause can’t help but notice that the black oil has a reddish hue to it, as if the sea has filled with blood. “Congratulations! 50 less Krauts,” an underling crows. “50 souls,” Krause corrects him. And the Atlantic can get curiously crowded when a whole bunch of ships engage one another: At one point, Greyhound has a harrowingly close call with one of its own merchant ships; later, they have to steer to avoid getting hit by the gunfire of another battle happening not too far away from them. These all prompt their own decisions, and orders. (They also prompt some terrific sound design. If you have a decent system at home, crank Greyhound up and enjoy the way it rolls and rumbles your floors and walls.)
Krause is a good part for Hanks, not just because it’s another entry in his pantheon of Decent Men, but also because the film shows the limits of decency when it comes to combat: There isn’t always a right answer to the many dilemmas he is faced with — which is, ironically, why decency matters, because you have to be able to live with the consequences of your choices. Despite its slender run time and relatively spare narrative, Greyhound lingers in the mind thanks to Hanks’s presence. Come for the naval geekery, stay for the humanity.
*A version of this article appears in the July 20, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
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