Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound gets the job done, but that’s about it
Maybe, like me, you’re in just the right mood for something like Greyhound, a taut, exciting, no-nonsense war movie that weighs in, less the end credits, at one hour and twenty-three minutes. The film’s brevity is true to the virtues it respects: clear, coolheaded professionalism, all egos checked, a well-oiled machine of well-trained men getting the job done. (Doesn’t that sound refreshing right about now?) There’s hardly any griping, one or two mistakes corrected and acknowledged without much anger. Tom Hanks, who stars and also wrote the script based on C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd, seems to be interested only in the moment-to-moment details, orders, repetitions of orders, and decisions made under the highest of pressures. Hanks, as Commander Ernest Krause, doesn’t get much dialogue that isn’t about the task at hand: guiding three destroyers to escort a convoy of allied ships to Liverpool.
Unfortunately, U-boats are in the way, and the commander of one of them, Grey Wolf, taunts Krause and his crew over the radio at every opportunity; this creepy, bodiless voice is so evil it comes from Thomas Kretschmann, that dab hand at Nazis, vampires, and general sadists. Krause ignores this voice and presses on. Given that Krause is a fictional character — and given to much more self-doubt in the Forester book — Hanks makes him a little too noble. Krause is the kind of man who stops a messenger to ask that he append “thank you” to a standard acknowledgment. He says his prayers, has a patient woman back home (Elisabeth Shue), and takes no particular pleasure in sending U-boat sailors to Davy Jones’ locker. “Fifty less krauts,” enthuses one of his men. “Fifty souls,” Krause clarifies. “Fifty fewer krauts,” the grammarian in me snarked.
Hanks, who enacts stoic heroism and its underpinnings of vulnerability as well as he ever has, wants us to see Krause as just a man doing his job the best he can. Krause’s equivalent to Horvath, the beefy sergeant who played right-hand man to Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, is Stephen Graham’s Cole, the second in command. There’s no “I thought you were my mother” banter between the men here, though; the dialogue Hanks has written is almost exclusively naval-wonk jibber-jabber, and while it adds texture to the movie’s fabric of verisimilitude, it doesn’t do much to illuminate the men. Three men die aboard the ship, and the only reason we know one of them is also the film’s diciest aspect. Krause has a black messmate, Cleveland (Rob Morgan), who’s always trying to make sure Krause gets something to eat. I’m sure Hanks wanted to point out that African-Americans fought and died in World War II, but Cleveland comes across as a servant in most of his screen time. Worse, he’s apparently interchangeable with the only other black sailor we see, whom Krause mistakes for Cleveland. I’ll give Hanks the benefit of the doubt and say he was also trying to sketch in the unconscious racism in even so noble a white man as Krause in 1942 — but it did give me pause.
Still, the movie goes like a torpedo, directed by Aaron Schneider for maximum momentum and tension. Schneider plays to the strengths of Hanks’ script — its monkish first-this-then-that tempo, similar to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. The action spans a few days and nights, but it all seems like the same gray-blue, ocean-drizzly whenever. At times, Greyhound comes close to being an abstract war film, a study in human forms rattling off codes and orders and coordinates to each other. If not for the (really kind of needless) prologue with Hanks exchanging gifts with Shue before going off to war, that’s almost what the movie is: a film about machines within machines, protecting or destroying other machines. If this came from Kubrick or Welles or someone comparably mordant, the point would seem to be that war turns men into weapons, literal things of steel and oil. But Tom Hanks is a nice man, and he wouldn’t say such a mean thing. Greyhound is a brisk exercise in military-cinematic precision, but it might leave you as hungry as Krause must be near the end.