It doesn’t matter whether he’s on the battlefield, on teaching children as Mr. Rogers, sailing the high seas in Captain Phillips, or commanding a naval fleet as he does in Greyhound, Tom Hanks is always a calming influence. His presence has the effect of making a movie as adrift as this WWII thriller one that is still admirable and imminently watchable, with Hanks doing something he hasn’t done since Larry Crowne, which is writing a role for himself. And in typical Hanks fashion, he casts himself in the role of the faithful, humble caretaker seeking to shepherd his flock from the wolves at the door.
The shepherd analogy comes from C.S. Shepherd’s 1955 book, The Good Shepherd, from which the movie is based, and it’s an apt title. Only in this case, the shepherd is U.S. Navy captain Commander Ernest Krause (Hanks), the flock are the sailors at his command, and the wolves are German U-boats seeking to blow them out of the water during the height of WWII. It’s Krause’s first command, and the assignment to protect supply ships in the Atlantic is a dangerous one he might not return from. There’s a heartbreaking moment in an otherwise stale prologue where Krause’s marriage proposal is rejected by the woman he loves (Elisabeth Shue). She wants to wait until the world isn’t in chaos, he shoots her a look that says “That day might not ever come.”
Otherwise, Greyhound spends very little time with the many men aboard Krause’s ship. Hanks made it a point not to make this another one of those movies where he plays the unflappable hero, but of course, he turns out to be that nonetheless. Krause is a religious man, we know it because he says prayer before every meal. We know he’s a good, decent man because he actually speaks with the black man (Rob Morgan) who serves his meals. It’s a little bit problematic that the only two black characters are both cooks who make Krause his eggs and coffee, but the easy shorthand to characterization is across the board, and we get the point even if they leave Hanks’ role pretty bland. This is, after all, only a 90-minute movie and it’s clear Hanks, and Get Low director Aaron Schneider have a specific vision for what Greyhound is to be.
If you’re looking for naval warfare, ship vs. ship combat, that’s what Greyhound offers and on that score it’s tense and exciting. The film is entirely about battles in the middle of raging sea waters. Cannons fire, torpedoes are launched, and there’s a lot of “Hard right to seaboard!” as Krause maneuvers to help as many as he can from the German attack. The ships of the Allied front are being hunted, in keeping with the “wolves” analogy, and it’s up to Krause to protect them any way he can. But this being his first command, Krause doesn’t always know if he’s up to the task. He relies on his faith and the seaworthiness of his crew to get by, but even they might not be enough against the relentless Nazi assault. The only time it feels less than authentic is when the Nazi predators break into the radio frequency and begin taunting the Allies in English. It’s like something out of a bad serial killer movie and not a WWII film that thrives on detail.
It’s been turbulent waters for Greyhound to get to this point. A long, expensive, oft-delayed project that Sony had originally planned for theaters, Apple took it off their hands recently at the cost of $70M. It’s an unfortunate development, one echoed by Hanks himself, as the film really would’ve seen benefit from the widescreen treatment. On home screens it’s the kind of movie that men of a certain age will admire. Hanks’ performance is reminiscent of classic Hollywood, and it’s safe to say he eyed those golden age war films as the model for what he wanted Greyhound to be. But times have passed, and it would be a lie to say Hanks hasn’t made a movie that feels old-fashioned. It’s possible Sony saw that, as well, which is why they were willing to unload it so easily.
While Greyhound is on target when it comes to putting audiences in the heat of the action, it isn’t enough for a film that frustratingly refuses to submerge deeper beneath the surface.