Tom Hanks and World War II Meet Again at Sea
DIRECTOR: AARON SCHNEIDER/2020
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a studio in possession of a good World War II script must be in want of Tom Hanks.
For almost three decades of starring, supporting, directing, producing, and narrating, Tom Hanks and this moment in history have gone together like peas and carrots. Now Hanks flips the script by writing it himself, adapting the 1955 historical fiction novel The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester. The story is set at sea (another setting familiar, or at least adjacent, to Hanks characters), in a stretch of the North Atlantic where U-boats roam freely. A captain’s mission in this “Black Pit” is to survive more than two days without air cover, and in Captain Krause’s (Hanks) case, to bring 37 supply ships and 3 other war ships with him. Easier said than done.
Greyhound is the story of one very long day in the life of Captain Krause, and save for one humanizing flashback, that’s the whole story. With this wartime backdrop, a man on a mission, and no subplots to speak of, it might remind you of 1917 minus the flashy style. Second-time feature director Aaron Schneider uses his decades of cinematography experience to create a look more like Captain Krause himself—straightforward, focused, and dependable.
Though that’s not as buzzworthy as a movie that appears to be filmed in a single take, it’s vital to a setting so esoteric. For much this film—including most of the first half hour—the dialogue is a Black Pit of maritime mumbo jumbo. As the crew plotted charts, read radars, and shouted updates about U-boat movements, I depended on their faces to tell me what news was good and bad. Maybe you’re better-versed in naval lingo, but I was grateful Greyhound wasn’t trying anything fancy while I was just trying to keep up. (In case you’re wondering, this is not a film you can watch while playing Tetris on your phone.) Elisabeth Shue and Rob Morgan make brief, memorable appearances, but most uniformed actors blend into the background, indistinguishable from each other or from the blue background palette.
Since I had no idea what anyone was talking about half the time, I was grateful the single plot thread didn’t require me to keep track of almost anyone but the Captain. This is a Hanks showcase start to finish, but don’t let his talent fool you into thinking this role is lightweight. Krause is contemplative but self-doubting; he’s no-nonsense but humble. His job demands quick decisions to determine life or death for hundreds, and he feels the consequences of every one. We understand little of this selflessness through his words—most of his grief only appears on his face.
Hanks’s writing credits are slim compared to his acting and producing, but between TV, shorts, a collection of short stories, and two other features, this isn’t his first time at sea. Still, I have no idea how Hanks wrote this jargon-heavy script so anyone who hasn’t worked on a World War II naval vessel could follow along. I suspect he knew from experience he could say more with his eyes than the page, and that gamble paid off. Greyhound may not be a groundbreaker, and it doesn’t match the grandiosity of the trailer that would mislead you to think this is Saving Private Ryan in the ocean. But with taut storytelling and a reliable performance, it’s another solid entry in the Tom Hanks/World War II canon, and we can always feel the warmest gratitude for any means of uniting them.