On Conan O’Brien’s podcast earlier this month, Tom Hanks told the host how he found The Good Shepherd, the C.S. Forester book that formed the basis for Greyhound, in a used book store. The picture on the cover, of an “aged, grey-haired, beaten-up guy", grabbed him. When he got to reading it, he couldn’t put it down. “It was like a procedural. It was start, continue, finish, that’s it."
Greyhound, written by Hanks and directed by Aaron Schneider, is also a start-continue-finish kind of film. It gets its name from the codename for the light warship commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an American doing his first Atlantic crossing, in 1942. He must guide an Allied convoy of 37 supply ships to Liverpool, crossing the dangerous “Black Pit", a stretch of the ocean where aerial cover isn’t available and German U-boats lurk. The film’s on a mission too. It’s 90 minutes, and barely a few moments are taking up by anything that’s not germane to the action. Apart from a flashback that lasts about three minutes, it all takes place on the ship.
It took Hanks some 10 years to get Greyhound made, and it isn’t difficult to see why. This is a film that’ll appeal most to World War II and navy nerds—not a demographic studios are looking to capture today. The script must have seemed impenetrable to execs reading it, a maelstrom of boatswain and commodore and huff duff (high-frequency direction finding). I’d estimate that 60-70 per cent of the dialogue is naval terminology. Yet, the film surges forward coherently; you may not know the terms but you’ll grasp the import.
Greyhound begins with the convoy three days away from air cover. The subtext—which we get to know early on—is Krause’s inexperience in war situations. The film plays it subtly—a microsecond of hesitation after one of his commands, a look of doubt quickly covered up. And Krause proves himself calm and capable immediately, successfully blowing up a threatening U-boat. However, he refuses to take a detour and pick up evidence of the ‘kill’, an indication of his unwavering focus on getting the convoy to safety but also his religious beliefs (he begins the film in prayer and occasionally speaks in scripture). When one of his men says the U-boat's sinking means there are 50 less Krauts out there, he replies, “50 souls."
Krause gets the respect of his men but the dangers increase once the convoy suffers losses and six German subs are found circling them. Krause, low on sleep, drinking endless cups of coffee, yet civil and calm in front of his subordinates, is a typical Hanks leader. There are shades of his captain from Saving Private Ryan and his commercial boat skipper in Captain Phillips—ordinary men who must lead by example and keep their self-doubt hidden away. There’s a moment where he seems frozen by a bad decision he’s made and half a dozen other problems requiring immediate attention. But he snaps out of it after a few seconds; there’s no time for even the brief breakdown of Saving Private Ryan.
One of the few times we leave the ship is when the camera lifts up, over the cloud cover until we can see the green Northern Lights. The reference might be to Krause’s religious bearings, or it could be a way of indicating the vantage point he needs to take everything in. But Krause is never above the action, he’s always in the thick of things, and Hanks is supremely adept at keeping us in the moment. His face, though largely impassive, is a map of the character’s emotions: the conversation with his executive officer (Stephen Graham) on the deck shows all the pressure and nagging doubt Krause is feeling at that moment without losing sight of his practical nature. There’s also a beautiful scene later when he’s asked to give up a well-deserved victory lap, and Hanks' face falls momentarily before righting itself.
This is such a dad film it’s almost a granddad film. It isn’t just the WWII setting and the naval geekery. Krause spends the whole film getting sailor’s names wrong. He changes from shoes to slippers at one point. Twice we hear cusses; in both instances the men apologize to Krause immediately. Greyhound is a modest effort, unconcerned with providing conflicts for the supporting characters or with larger statements about war and honour. Instead, it’s efficient, stirring and self-contained, virtues that seem almost quaint in American cinema today.
Greyhound is streaming on Apple TV+.