Disney+ hit the jackpot in trying to compete with Netflix for the lucrative home audience with Hamilton, and now Apple TV+ is hoping Greyhound, its new World War II actioner starring Tom Hanks, will have the same response. Unfortunately, it might be too tall a task for this film, even with all it has going for it, especially Hanks and the seemingly never-ending demand for war stories. Just when it seems that every possible story of World War II has been told on screen, Greyhound arrives to dramatize a part of the war that’s not often told: the battle in the sea. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, they dragged the United States into the war, and the entire country shifted its focus to manufacturing critical supplies for the war effort. What’s often overlooked is the massive effort that was required to transport all those supplies, as well as troops, from America to Europe. The Atlantic Ocean served as perhaps the most forgotten front of the war, one where ships, planes and submarines played a high-stake game of hide-and-seek, chase and Battleship.
Big battles may get all the attention, but it’s the seemingly banal puzzle of logistics that sometimes provide the most underrated drama in war movies. Dunkirk was about how to get men off a beach and 1917 was about the delivery of a message. It may not be sexy, but, in war, even the seemingly mundane tasks come with extreme peril. And even though Greyhound comes nowhere close to being Dunkirk or 1917, it still manages to illustrate the ravages and tension of war, no matter the front.
Written by Hanks himself, (based on the C.S. Forester novel The Good Shepherd), who is a self-described World War II junkie, Greyhound tells the story of U.S. Navy captain Ernest Krause and his inaugural command of the battle ship Greyhound, which was tasked with leading the escort of a convoy of troop and supply ships to England. It focuses on the section of the crossing in the middle of the Atlantic, known as “the black pit,” which was too far from either coast to allow air cover. During the critical days without air support, the escort battleships were reliant on their limited resources, including sonar and visual contact, to spot the dangerous Nazi U-boats, one of Hitler’s most prized and coveted elements of attack. The submarines would surface to fire their torpedoes at the ships, so, often, by the time you could actually see them in the water, it was too late. So the Greyhound relies almost solely on its sonar to try to navigate the treacherous path.
Greyhound puts the audience in the thick of it all, as most of the movie takes place in the central command post of the warship, tight quarters where the captain barks out orders to the dozens of young, enlisted men who carry them out. Perhaps even more fascinating than the battles themselves is witnessing the intricate and seemingly chaotic interplay of these sailors, each with their own specific duty. There is no room for ego or argument here, for discomfort or fear. The most significant tension comes from the logistics of communicating with the single crewman assigned to sonar duty, as the back-and-forth requests and commands are echoed via a single sailor, whose seemingly only duty is to relay messages to the captain. If even one word of the message is relayed incorrectly, the consequences could be catastrophic. Director Aaron Schneider does a good job to put the audience in the thick of it, illustrating the stakes and the tension of each moment, even though there are times when you can’t help but feel lost in all the back-and-forth.
Even though it is compelling to see the complex machinery of men that is required to operate a battleship, the film moves from intricate to thrilling when we leave the tight quarters of the command post and venture outside, to the raging sea and the scope of battle. Your pulse can’t help but race when the Nazi subs surface, with their menacing warpaint, taunting the Allied battleships. The CGI is truly incredible, as it feels like you are on the ocean, literally in the middle of it. The warfare is exciting and the cat-and-mouse game with the subs is really well done. Schneider trims all the fat from every scene (as evidenced by the brisk 91-minute run time), a no-nonsense approach that results in a taut and fast-paced battle movie.
Unfortunately, this film is too much of one thing. There is not enough emotional contrast to the churning waves and the stressful tension on the bridge. Krause’s first mate, played by Stephen Graham, and the mess hand who is constantly trying to get the captain to eat something, played by Rob Morgan, come closest to being emotional touchstones for Hanks’ character, as Krause relaxes just a bit with each man, and, if just for a moment, is able to reveal some self-doubt and humanity. But emotional connections are too few and far between here, even the opening scene where Krause is saying goodbye to his girlfriend, played by Elisabeth Shue, is strange, stiff and cold. Hanks’s performance itself feels tired and a bit phoned in, probably because he’s done this kind of role a million times.
Still, the effective score by Blake Neely keeps you engaged throughout and the CGI ocean battle sequences are enough to recommend this movie, especially if you are a war movie buff. But beware the lack of any compelling emotional elements and the existence of long sequences filled with fast-paced warship-control talk that just might make you tune out.
Greyhound is a good shot across the bow, but Apple had better have much more powerful torpedoes than this if it hopes to sink the competition.