Tom Hanks Leads a Boat Over Troubled Waters

The veteran actor is a pleasure to watch in ‘Greyhound,’ now streaming.

The wartime sea-epic Greyhound can only be seen on AppleTV+. This means that a viewing — even a week’s free trial — involves entering passwords, numerical sequences and attestations that one isn’t a robot. Appropriately for Greyhound’s wartime subject, it’s like cracking the Enigma code: a pain, but worth the effort.

Its star and writer Tom Hanks was right to be saddened by the streaming release — it would have been smashing on a great big wall to wall screen — but it still carries a significant jolt.

The USS Greyhound is a Fletcher-class destroyer. It’s an aptly named vessel: built for pursuit, the low-profile Navy ship is reminiscent of a harrier, and has a top speed of 38 knots, around 40 miles per hour. The Greyhound will be the first command for the deeply religious Captain Ernie Krause (Tom Hanks). In the wartime winter of February 1942, he and a quartet of light battleships are to escort a convoy of 37 merchant marine freighters across the deadliest part of the North Atlantic, a gap referred to as “the black pit,” — infested with German U-Boats and out of range of aerial support.

There are two things one wants from a war movie: lucid storytelling and a lack of fist-pumping moral idiocy. Both are evident here. Director Aaron Schnieder (Get Low) lets the story serve Hanks’ captain and Hanks’ script. The reactions from his faithful navigator, Cole (solidly played by Stephen Graham), and his crew are but shading in the background. So is the meeting with the woman he loves (Elisabeth Shue, very handsome in her 1940s wardrobe) in the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel, during the first Christmas after Pearl Harbor. She’s there to be the Girl He Left Behind. In a longer version, we’d have learned why Evelyn has the news of Krause’s new command even before Krause gets it.

We join the new captain on the high seas. Almost as soon as the last American plane turns back to home, the trouble begins. The tricky, breakdown-prone sonar equipment picks up the noise of submarines nearby — first stalking, then sinking, the ships in the convoy.

Future generations will be convinced Tom Hanks won the Second World War, just as, 50 years ago, they were convinced that John Wayne had delivered victory to the Allies. A number of movie actors went through that war and came back tougher, more frayed and ambiguous. Similarly, all these war movies Hanks has been through seem to have rubbed off on him. He didn’t used to be this interesting. Greyhound has a series of underplayed scenes, demonstrations of low-key gallantry from this officer with a sag in the jowls and a white stripe through his hair. He’s as different from his crew as a scoutmaster is from his scouts. (Greyhound implicitly notes the youth of the sailors — the war was a children’s crusade, as Kurt Vonngegut noted.) One radio-man wears an extra-size helmet to protect his headphone equipment; it makes him look like Rick Moranis in Spaceballs, or like a child playing soldier.

Krause must hide his anxiety from young men studying him for signs of it. We see it, though, like the quick burst of sobbing when he gets a couple of seconds alone. In his cabin, far beyond the point of exhaustion, Krause is bemused at the breaking of a pencil point on a notepad, when trying to compose a last message to his convoy. Even the demonstration of Krause’s prime characteristic, his Christian-soldiering — or rather, sailoring — isn’t boring. There’s mildness in the way Krause rebukes the crew hurraying over the successful depth-charging of a Nazi sub. He isn’t a starchy preacher. Hanks’ voice is quiet to the brink of inaudibility, when he reads that noble passage from the Book of Common Prayer meant for burial at sea. (The scene is not too noble to watch, though; there’s grim pathos in the way the third body dumped over the side becomes tangled in the American flag that shrouds it.)

The depth Hanks brings to this almost eclipses the adventure, but mostly, Greyhound is a ripping yarn. It’s an adaptation of a 1955 novel titled The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forester, the popular storyteller of the British Navy in the Napoleonic wars and the creator of the heroic Captain Horatio Hornblower. (There would be no Aubrey and Maturin if it weren’t for Hornblower.)  Built into the movie is the excitement of the engagements — the zigging and zagging to escape the subs, which makes the Greyhound yaw like a sailboat, with the bow tilted at a sickening angle. Despite the welcome scarcity of patriotic gore, again and again are scenes of nightmare fodder. By chance, the Greyhound pulls up side by side with a surfaced German sub, so close that you could throw a rock at it. Yet because of the placement of the guns, it’s still out of range. A viewer can decide which calamities are the most fear-inducing: in the dark of night, a long slow sideswiping of another ship, with the sparks flying from the grinding bulkheads, or an incident with a caroming torpedo, malignantly alive and horribly fast.

Schneider was a cinematographer once, and he works an austere palette of greys, blacks, frosty blues, and gritty whites when the ship ices over. At night the bridge is lit with rich red light. One scene takes the God’s eye view rising up from gunsmoke and fog and into the neon green of the aurora borealis. 

Thoroughly detailed and fast-paced as it is, the historical accuracy of Greyhound is sometimes dubious. One of the U-Boat wolfpack broadcast taunts over the Greyhound’s radio, howling as if they were impersonating 1950s radio DJ Wolfman Jack. (What part of ‘run silent, run deep’ can’t the Nazis understand?). And Krause quotes from the lyrics of the tune “Rum and Coca-Cola,” several years before that song was a hit.

But Hanks will do things that seem fresh throughout: as during a battle when he shows gentleness with a young crewman too paralyzed by fright to carry out his instructions.

“Son, you heard the order?” Leadership is another one of those things you don’t miss until it’s gone. Hanks is a reservoir of depleted American integrity, and watching him is a constant and reassuring pleasure.

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories