GreyhoundReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/08/20 21:17:31
If you were to sit down and try to come up with the quintessential Tom Hanks movie—one that perfectly encapsulated the themes, ideas and attitudes that he has explored over and again in a career that has made him one of the most beloved cultural figures of our time—there is an excellent chance that it might wind up looking a lot like his latest effort, “Greyhound.” As with a number of his past efforts, it looks back at a particular moment in recent American history—World War II, a favorite subject of his, in this case—and tells a story that celebrate such quintessential American values as duty, honor and overcoming doubt and adversity in order to stand up and fight for the greater good and finds him playing a modest and low-key character who would never go so far as to describe himself as a hero but who nevertheless proves to be capable of heroic acts. And yet, despite all of the obvious sincerity on display, the resulting film is kind of a dead bulb that is ultimately as dull as it is noble and boy howdy, is it ever noble.Based on the 1955 novel by C.S. Forester, the film takes place in 1942 during the years-long Battle of the Atlantic and finds Ernest Krause (Hanks) commanding the American destroyer U.S.S. Keeling, his first such position, as the lead ship of a convoy guiding and protecting Canadian and British supply vessels from attacks by German U-boats as they journey across the Atlantic to Allied forces. As the story begins, the ship is about to hit a particularly treacherous stretch of the journey where they will be out of range of any possible air support from Allied planes. Sure enough, once the ship hits that stretch, the convoy is attacked by U-boats and Krause is tasked with fighting off those attacks while protecting his men and as many of the ships in the convoy as possible.
And that, oddly enough, is pretty much it. Hanks also wrote the screenplay and has clearly elected to go the minimalist route by paring everything down to the absolute essentials while putting a special focus on the minutiae of what it would have really been like on that ship at that time—instead of the kind of long expository speeches that one might expect to here, I would say that roughly 60% of the dialogue consists of tersely barked-out orders or people repeating those tersely barked-out orders. In theory, this is not a bad idea—lord knows we don’t need another one of those sequences in which the big battle pauses long enough so that the heroic commander can deliver a rousing and heart-tugging speech about the reasons Why We Fight designed to inspire the troops and possibly score an Oscar nomination in the process. In this particular case, however, it robs the film of any significant dramatic or emotional impact that it might have had and makes the very few moments that do not revolve specifically around the combat details—such as the brief opening scene which Ernest proposes to his girlfriend (Elisabeth Shue) before shipping out (Shue is then dropped from the narrative, save for a couple of seconds at the very end) and a running bit in which the ship’s cook (Rob Morgan) keeps trying to get him to eat something over the course of the three days that the film is set—seem even more hollow and fake than they might have otherwise come across in a more conventionally fleshed-out narrative.
The stripped-down approach also wreaks havoc with Hanks’s character as well. Like so many of his past roles, Krause is quiet, decent, dignified, brave, loyal and relentlessly self-effacing, the kind of person who, if this film was based on an actual naval battle, would insist that any big-screen retelling stress the importance and heroics of his crew over his own specific achievements. Unfortunately, with this particular take on the material, Krause ends up being the only character of note that we get to know at all. All the other people on the ship are essentially reduced to faceless hordes who have little to do other than say “Aye, aye, captain” while gazing admiringly at him. (Near the beginning, we see him reprimanding a couple of his men for fighting and by the end of it, the sailors look like they were caught by Dad and are ashamed that they have disappointed him more than anything else.) This is not to say that Hanks’s performance is bad because it isn’t—it is just one that lacks any surprise and does not go anywhere beyond the obvious.Then again, that is pretty much the problem with “Greyhound” as a whole. Director Aaron Schneider handles the action material in a reasonably effective manner (though even at running time that barely hits the 80-minute mark before the end credits kick in, your patience for CGI-heavy naval battles may be sorely tested) but never figures out a way to make them visually memorable. (Even though this is a film that was intended to screen in theaters, it does not feel as if it has lost anything by premiering instead on Apple+.) With an emphasis on technical detail and a total disinterest towards anything else, the film feels at times like a $50,000,000 exercise in cosplay than an involving story. Put it this way, if my dad—who would literally sit through any film revolving around WW II, many of them multiple times—had lived to see “Greyhound,” my guess is that he probably would have liked it. I also have the feeling that he probably would felt that one viewing was more than enough.
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