‘Greyhound’: Submarine Captain Tom Hanks’ latest tribute to The Greatest Generation
Listen up, all you Dunkirk fans and 1917 boosters: time for another visceral You-Are-There chronicle of world war hell. It’s cinematic PTSD, served up for your viewing pleasure. The naval tribute film Greyhound goes for that same compressed-time edge-of-your-seat thrill, that same granular terror of military combat. And while its ambition gets waterlogged by thin personalities and special-effects onanism, the ride is salty and sweaty enough to provide more than a few nautical kicks.
GREYHOUND ★★★(3/5 stars)
Directed by: Aaron Schneider
Written by: Tom Hanks
Starring: Tom Hanks, Stephen Graham, Rob Morgan, Elizabeth Shue
Running time: 91 min
The arena is the North Atlantic Sea, February 1942, and the focal point is Captain Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks), newly minted commander of a destroyer called the U.S.S. Keeling. It uses the call sign “Greyhound” as it communicates with its convoy of 37 ships bringing troops and supplies to Liverpool. The destroyer’s charge, one of four light warships on guard, is to protect everyone from U-boats during the dangerous transatlantic mission, with an assist from heavily-armed air cover. The only hitch is the “Black Pit,” an area that fighter planes can’t reach, let alone protect. And it takes the better part of two days to cross it.
So as the clock counts down from 48 hours, the aqua-bound Greyhound patrols the seas, using sonar as its eyes and dropping depth charges strategically into the murky brine below. Their target: the Wolfpack, not the trio of befuddled bachelors from The Hangover but a clutch of Nazi submarines sporting murals of lupine heads. “We will find you in the night to kill you,” taunts the German-accented voices on their hijacked short-wave channel, the invasive taunts followed by ham-fisted howls that still manage to tingle the spine.
“Ease the rudder!” yells Krause. “Steady as you go!” Hanks wrote the skeletal screenplay, and made sure to give himself lots of seaworthy phrases to bark, like “running down the target” and “this was an all-hands job.” There’s nothing wrong with honoring the proper lingo, but there’s so little else in the way of character-development dialogue that his jargon usage sticks out like a leaky deck. Hard right rudder!
That said, the film still rattles and hums with moments of arresting dread. Witness the enormous blood-soaked pool of debris and corpses that rises up from a confirmed hit; the lightning flashes of explosions in the hulls of sinking vessels; a stray shot of ammo that improbably ricochets off the water’s surface. Greyhound captures the dark beauty of such utter destruction, mixing moments of awe with the human carnage of souls lost in icy oblivion.
There are delicious action sequences, too, including the Greyhound’s deft response to dead-aimed torpedoes. But for every pitch-perfect set piece, there feels like an equal and opposite amount of indulgent camera sweeps that swirl around the action with superfluous gusto. One particular peacocking shot glides over a mammoth firefight and rises to the heavens, breaking through the clouds to reveal the Northern Lights. A meditative oh-the-humanity look at nature’s indifference to the folly of war? Or extra billable hours for the film’s legion of digital-rendering artists?
Krause is the audience surrogate, the film’s moral compass stress-tested by circumstance. Hanks brings his trademark decency to the role, a pious leader refusing to eat or sleep during the Black-Pit gauntlet. The parade of periodic shots showing his untouched steak ham, his toast, his eggs, are there to prove his stoic resolve, but he could at least offer it to one of his hungry-eyed crew members instead. Maybe give it to that guy with scared-rabbit expression and the oversized helmet. Not too sure what his name is or why no one is acknowledging the giant skull cap, but he keeps making me think of Rick Moranis in Spaceballs.
For some reasons Krause’s feet start to bleed, too, I guess to virtue-signal his Christ-like aura, or maybe because he hasn’t broken in his new boots? Strange that a middle-aged career naval officer doesn’t have the proper footwear for an all-night vigil. Anyway, there’s blood on the floor.
Greyhound suffers a bit too much from God’s-Eye-CGI that transform harrowing melées into you-sunk-my-battleship! war games, as well as its who-are-you-again? cast of forgettable faces. But its immersive approach to sea battles is generally more effective than not, from the shock of waves relentlessly breaking against the boat’s bow to enormous vessels narrowly scraping next to each other.
Yes, the film is an homage to the brave soldiers who protected the free world from tyranny, and is another in a long line of Hanks’ projects that venerate the Greatest Generation. But, hey, those guys were pretty damn great. And they deserve endless recognition for their sheer resolve, not to mention their humbling heroism.
One brilliant and admirably understated touch: when Krause’s pencil tip breaks and he reaches over to grind it with a mechanical pencil sharpener. This was a war fought not only with guns and ships, but also with Morse Code lanterns, binoculars, rolled-out charts, and drafting dividers. It’s a conflagration with protractor technology. And it’s even more staggering than any Hollywood effect.