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Non-Review Review: Greyhound

Greyhound is a tight and claustrophobic maritime thriller that knows pretty much exactly what it’s doing.

At its best, Greyhound capitalises not just on Tom Hanks as the patron saint of dads, boomers and the American cultural memory of the Second World War, but also as a time-displaced Jimmy Stewart. This makes a certain amount of sense. Despite the presence of character actors like Stephen Graham, Rob Morgan and Elizabeth Shue, Tom Hanks is the only star in Greyhound. The film remains tightly focused on Captain Ernest Krause, the commander assigned to protect a convoy of supplies crossing the Atlantic shortly after America’s entry into the Second World War.

It doesn’t exactly shatter expectations.

It makes sense that Greyhound should be tailored to Tom Hanks. Hanks wrote the screenplay, adapting it from C.S. Forrester’s The Good Shepherd. More than that, Hanks has demonstrated his strong interest in the history of American involvement in the Second World War with films like Saving Private Ryan and television series like Band of Brothers and The Pacific. As such, Greyhound feels like it fits perfectly within the actor’s wheelhouse.

This is an illustration of how effectively Greyhound works. Greyhound is a movie that knows what it needs to deliver, and sets about delivering that in the most efficient manner possible.

The old man and the sea.

This is perhaps most obvious with the character of Krause himself. Greyhound isn’t interested in deconstructing or interrogating the ideal of Hanksian decency. Indeed, for all that Hanks merits comparisons to Stewart, it is difficult to imagine Hanks in a film like Vertigo. Instead, Greyhound leans into the idea of Tom Hanks as an avatar of an idealised American virtue. Captain Ernest Krause never feels like a fully three-dimensional character, but instead the embodiment of a certain set of ideals.

Greyhound repeatedly emphasises the fundamental integrity of Captain Ernest Krause. The film consistently stresses that Krause feels guilty about his own basic human necessities, like sleeping or eating, while the men under his command are in danger. In this sense, Hanks is fantastic casting. Hanks is the film’s anchor. He is the audience’s tether, and director Aaron Schneider wisely leans into Hanks’ ability to hold a film like this together pretty much singlehandedly.

“Okay, maybe not Vertigo, but this is kinda like Rear Window, right?”

Greyhound has garnered a great deal of attention for its distribution. Sony originally planned for the film to have a theatrical release in June, but the pandemic pushed the release back, allowing Apple to step in and purchase the film for $70m. However, despite the fact that the film’s distribution might be signs of a sea change within the industry, its content is reassuringly old-fashioned. Hanks and director Aaron Schneider have fashioned a movie that plays like an homage to those old-fashioned maritime thrillers.

Schneider keeps Greyhound intensely focused on what it’s doing. Greyhound works best when it is intensely focused on its mood. This is the story about a convey through dangerous waters, a mission with a hidden enemy and a constant threat. Greyhound plays up this paranoia and claustrophobia. The film is largely constructed of tight close-ups of characters in confined spaces, shouting naval jargon at one another with mounting desperation. Even when the characters step outsife, the sea and sky blur into a single grey mess.

The movie doesn’t make waves.

All life outside the USS Keeling is rendered abstract – voices breaking over radio, communications printed out over establishing shots. For the audience, much like the characters, there is only the vaguest sense of what is lurking in the dark waters beyond the ship’s hull. At one point, the enemy U-Boat breaks the surface, its tower moving across the water like the shark fin from Jaws. Blake Neely’s soundtrack plays this up, combining the rhythmic percussion expected of modern war movies with a primal screech that sounds like a tortured whale song. It’s animalistic.

There is no tangible attempt to humanise the enemy here. The only sense that German sailors might actually be people comes in their persistent and sadistic taunts over the radio waves. “We hear the screams of your comrades as they die,” they goad. Describing themselves as the “Grey Wolf”, they play with their prey, mocking, “Did you think you had slipped away from the Grey Wolf?” The result is intensely subjective – and effective. Greyhound manages an impressive sense of escalating tension and dread across its runtime.

Grahamming it up.

To be fair, there are moments when Schneider and Hanks lose control of the film. The weakest sections of Greyhound are the brief moments in which the audience is taken off the USS Keeling to get a glimpse of the life that Krause left behind. There’s nothing particularly insightful or effective about these brief moments of reprieve. The information and effect might easily have been conveyed with the shot of a single photograph in Krause’s quarters. Instead, it takes the audience out of the film’s otherwise suffocating surroundings.

Similarly, the few efforts to humanise the enemy seem jarring and disconnected from the movie around them. When a younger officer reports they sank “150 Krauts”, Krause’s solemn correction that they were “150 souls” seems a little overwrought and unearned for a movie that otherwise treats the enemy as faceless monsters. It is an admirable choice, and one that underscores Krause’s fundamental decency, but it seems at odds with the movie’s intense focus on this crew and this mission, and its portrayal of the German sailors outside of that line.

A Most Ernest Man.

Still, there is an impressive tightness to Greyhound. The movie runs a brisk ninety-one minutes, which makes it surprisingly lean as summer blockbusters go. That brevity helps to underscore the movie’s core strengths. It is a movie that relies on adrenaline and tension, and maintaining those sensations for longer than an hour-and-a-half is a big ask for even the most skilled filmmakers. Instead, Greyhound gets in, gets out and gets the job done. Much like Krause himself, Greyhound sets out to deliver exactly what it needs to, and decides a straight line is the best course.

There’s not a lot happening beneath the surface of Greyhound. Then again, it doesn’t need any depth. The submarines are the enemy.

One Response

  1. As a Second World War buff and a fan of old school Hollywood this does sound fun. While I can’t say Hanks is my favourite actor (‘Big’ excepted – I love that film) I do like him and think he brings a lot of old fashioned studio craftsmanship to whatever role he is given.

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