Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG-13, 91 minutes
Directed by: Aaron Schneider
In treacherous times like these when we’re searching for strong, steadfast leaders in our world, it feels like a blessing to see one reflected so elegantly on screen in Tom Hanks’ portrayal of a U.S. Navy Commander in GREYHOUND. Adapted by Hanks himself from C.S. Forester’s novel “The Good Shepherd,” the action-centric, historical drama centers on a three-day period in the frozen winter of 1942 as he’s tasked to escort a convoy of Allied ships being stalked by Nazi U-boats through unprotected waters in the North Atlantic. The picture’s percolating, hand-wringing intensity builds to a fever pitch by film’s end, delivering a satisfying, if not occasionally predictable, thrill ride.
The film takes its name from the (fictional) U.S Navy destroyer of which Commander Ernest Krause (Hanks) has taken charge. It’s his first big break in the prestigious position after getting passed over multiple times before. To say he has a lot riding on this opportunity is an understatement. It’s not solely the safety of the 37 ships filled with soldiers, crew, and supplies. It’s also a point of pride, in which he stands as a humble servant of God, praying right before the guarding air escorts abandon them in a dangerous dead zone known as “The Black Pit” in middle of the Atlantic.
Things start out relatively easily for Krause, setting an argument between two squabbling crew members, demonstrating his capabilities as a compassionate leader. There’s also a little time to show his bond with the ship’s second in command, Charlie Cole (Stephen Graham), and its caring cook, Cleveland (Rob Morgan). However, stressful situations quickly ramp up as the susceptible fleet comes under attack by a German submarine wolfpack, whose mission is to terrorize and destroy them before reaching the other side of the divide. The opposition lurks in the darkness of the shared waters, their gray sails ascending to surface like great white shark dorsal fins. Their heavy, nefarious presence is reflected in the sharp notes of Blake Neely’s score, and further characterized by the sound design team assigning the villain a signature sound – a guttural, belching growl of water sounding similar to a predatory jungle cat. Yet when they’re given an actual voice (Thomas Kretschmann) who taps into their transmissions, the malevolent taunts are delivered with the same vocal inflections as the nihilists in THE BIG LEBOWSKI.
The filmmakers retrofit the narrative with a survivalist bent, treating the convoy like they would a group of men thrust into the wilderness, fighting against odds to stay alive. Though it would’ve been interesting to delineate each of the ships in the convoy with a personality, they establish a small handful of them to feel a sense of agony when one inevitably doesn’t make it. To add visual interest and mirror thematic motifs, cinematographer Shelly Johnson plays with contrasting color palettes indoors and outdoors. The close interior quarters of the Greyhound have effused yellow undertones, whereas outside in the dangerous chill, blue and grey overtones dominate.
Hanks and Schneider perfectly craft the subtleties of Krause’s characterization through performance and writing with a sense of swift economy. The unspoken traits of his character are brought to light in unassuming ways throughout, from the silent repose of his morning ritual (which bookends the feature), to his ability to process shock and grief, distilling those sensations with enormous fortitude. After they thwart the enemy’s first strike, the subtext of his non-actions eclipses his resolve. Instead of immediately changing out from his protective lifejacket and helmet into his commanding gear like an experienced captain would’ve done, he forgets, only to be diplomatically reminded by one of his crew. Finding heartening moments has less to do with understanding the orders being barked at the crew and more to do with getting a kick out of seeing a fearless leader problem-solve and strategize to evade irreparable losses.
That said, a handful of other characters fail to get the same treatment as Krause, which is only partially understandable given the snappy pacing. Scant few of the crew aboard the titular destroyer are defined in any way. They all blend together. It would’ve been nice to establish the metaphorical cogs in the well-oiled machine. Since Hanks finds great strength carving out small noteable moments for himself, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher why he chose not to develop Krause’s subordinates in a similar manner. The lone woman in his world is there exclusively to aid his arc. Krause’s long-suffering girlfriend Evelyn (Elisabeth Shue) serves as his second love (the first being his job), bolstering his external stakes. Her sole scene, set during the saturated hopeful twinkle of the Christmas season mere months earlier, provides an interesting aesthetic juxtaposition between her radiating warmth and beauty and the cruelty of the sea – Krause’s harsh mistress, if you will.
While Hanks has grown in his writing skills by leaps and bounds since LARRY CROWNE (his previous feature writing credit, one shared with Nia Vardalos), he still has some things to learn. Luckily for us, with a page-turner of a novel as his guide and a skilled director at the helm, he was able to turn his ship around.
GREYHOUND begins streaming on Apple TV+ on July 10.