Greyhound review: Tom Hanks' Second World War Navy adventure is Captain Phillips without the tension
Dir: Aaron Schneider; Starring: Tom Hanks, Stephen Graham, Rob Morgan, Karl Glusman, Thomas Kretschmann, Elisabeth Shue. 12A cert, 91 min
True movie stars are among the trustiest brands around. Clint glares, Jack crackles, Marlon smoulders: it’s why we go to them, and keep coming back. As for Tom Hanks? Twee as it might sound, the man inspires. Since his mid-1990s move away from comedy, Hanks has been Hollywood’s preeminent ordinary chap who weathers extraordinary times, from desert-island exile in Cast Away to extraterrestrial disaster in Apollo 13. Yet wherever in space and time his characters are struggling, the takeaway is generally the same: if he can get through it with stoicism, humility and grace, then perhaps so can we.
In theory, Greyhound should offer an interesting spin on the Hanks screen persona, in no small part because Hanks wrote it. (This is his third film script, after That Thing You Do! and Larry Crowne, both of which also contained plum roles for their writer.) An adaptation of the 1955 CS Forester novel The Good Shepherd, this one tells the story of Ernest Krause, a US Navy commander at the helm of a destroyer which escorts an Allied supply convoy across the Atlantic. The year is 1942 – a point in the Second World War when the Mid-Atlantic gap had yet to be closed, and Nazi U-boats still prowled the ocean untroubled by anti-submarine aircraft.
Ernie is a long-serving career officer on his first wartime mission, but is keenly aware of the of the treacherousness of the historical moment, even before the inevitable onslaught begins. Wedged in the frame of his cabin mirror is a verse from Hebrews: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” Everything else, though, hangs in the balance. It is easy to see what drew Hanks to Forester’s novel, since Ernie’s decency is so foregrounded in the script. We meet him praying in his quarters, haloed in heavenly light, while on deck he shrinks at jingoism: when a younger crew member cheers the demise of “50 Krauts” after a U-boat is sunk, Ernie gently reminds him that they were officers too.
Yet beyond such grace notes, there’s little sense of Ernie’s inner life or what he stands for, and even a prologue in which he bids farewell to his angelic sweetheart (Elisabeth Shue, the only woman in the picture) feels tokenistic rather than revealing. As such, the film plays less like the Hanksian character study you might be hoping for – a new Captain Phillips, or Sully – than a Battle of the Atlantic simulator ride with a casting golden ticket. If it wasn’t for Covid, you can bet this would be screening in 4DX.
Still, the procedural details are all nicely observed. There is a particular tactile thrill in watching the shifting positions of enemy vessels being plotted in real time in wax pencil – and a very different one in seeing the surface of the grey-blue water suddenly struck through with white, like a just-shattered car windscreen, when a depth charge explodes down below. But the tension is superficial – more a function of dramatic lighting and some well-timed bangs than an active investment in the characters’ plights.
Stephen Graham and Rob Morgan are given very little to work with in prominent supporting roles, while occasional radio broadcasts from a U-boat commander (Thomas Kretschmann) that should have been bloodcurdling become just another thing to hurry through between torpedoes. At least the U-boats themselves have real presence, thanks largely to repeated shots of their turrets cutting menacingly through the foam, like sharks’ fins.
Director Aaron Schneider shot the film on board the USS Kidd, an actual Second World War destroyer berthed in Baton Rouge, but the seascapes are all computer-generated, and the coal-and-pewter colour scheme becomes relentless. No doubt that is how the Atlantic actually looks. But it’s easy to imagine Robert Zemeckis – one of the great directors of Hanks in Forrest Gump and Cast Away, and a master synthesiser of live-action and CG – wringing some visual variety out of a tale like this that went far beyond a mid-film camera tilt up to the northern lights. The ocean may be perilously deep, but Greyhound’s currents swirl at ankle height. If this is all Tom Hanks imagines a Tom Hanks vehicle to be, he greatly underestimates himself.
Greyhound is available to stream on Apple TV+ from Friday 10 July