Director: Aaron Schneider
Writer: Tom Hanks
Cast: Tom Hanks, Stephen Graham, Devin Druid
Streaming On: Apple TV +
If there was ever a time to miss the big screen, it’s now. I felt a little sad while admiring Greyhound – a World War II film of relentless pressure and exquisite rhythm – on a streaming platform. It’s a strange viewing experience, almost as if the oceans of the planet were aching to submerge the lands. At its taut 90-minute runtime, Greyhound is an entirely sensory experience, with the camera trailing urgent characters on an American destroyer in the middle of the choppy Atlantic. It’s a naval warfare thriller with the cinematic grammar of a shark movie; the German submarines circle and intercept the Allied vessels ominously, with dolphin cries and metal fins punctuating their stealth attacks. A cough by a young officer acquires the narrative heft of a cliffhanger. Much of the film is heavy on technical navy lingo, but we aren’t meant to understand what the men are saying as much as what they’re seeing and doing. That’s where the protagonist comes in.
The Greyhound’s Captain, Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks), is in charge of an escort group that’s defending a valuable merchant ship convoy to Liverpool. Owing to a treacherous stretch, the convoy has to survive without air cover for two crucial days. A veteran Navy commander on his first war-time assignment is a clever choice. For one, he has the license to live upto his name. He is driven by the primal humanity of a civilian, not unlike Mark Rylance’s boat-owner character in Dunkirk. When a jubilant junior remarks that they sunk “50 krauts” after bombing a German U-boat, the captain mumbles “50 souls” by muscle memory. The running motif of Ernest missing his meals across this tense period feels natural. In many ways, he’s an anxious newbie who wants to impress, but his success is even more conflicting. He will not sleep through it, despite being aware of the sleeplessness that will follow.
Most importantly, the danger seems more vivid and immediate through his eyes. The symphony of destruction is very alien to him even as he assumes control; there’s a constant look of wonder on his face as he watches ships exploding, enemies approaching and people being rescued. His orders are delivered, not barked; they feel like part of a conversation where he half-expects a better idea in reply. The film has an excuse to follow him from one vantage point to another, constantly peering into the seas and the skies, thereby giving Greyhound its striking visual canvas. At one point, a wide unbroken shot floats from the fiery night-time action of the ocean into the clouds and above, to reveal the Northern Lights dancing in an upper dimension – almost as if the luminous language of the heavens were juxtaposed against the glowing violence of the waters. It’s not nature mocking its inhabitants as much as an “expectation” panel silently scrutinizing the “reality” panel. The shot is magical, but also in line with the Captain’s gaze. This is how Ernie, a religious man who quotes passages from the Bible and prays before meals, must imagine divinity and the bigger picture. This is how he must view his role in the Battle of the Atlantic. This is what he must envision when he resists the desensitization of war.
Tom Hanks stars, but he is also credited for the screenplay, which is based on C.S. Forrester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd. At times, we sense that an actor is writing the film – in that Hanks trusts his own performance so much that his script barely explores the internal conflict of his character. There’s a clumsy pre-mission flashback with a love interest (Elizabeth Shue) that tells us this is a promotion he deserved. But apart from that, it’s only the actor who – through a position of both authority and submission – expresses the quiet trauma of his arc. It’s in his tireless routine and obsessive responsibility that we sense the history of a man unsure of his own faith.
It’s not the first time Hanks has played an underdog captain (Captain Phillips, Sully, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan), and it’s not the last time he exploits our perception of his nicest-celebrity-ever image to present a portrait of courage and vulnerability. When someone like him gives instructions on screen, the cutaways – to the worried young boys operating beyond their age on a bobbing metal vessel – acquire a paternal edge. It’s like watching a dad who is willing his kids to track sonar signals and complicated underwater vector paths instead of asking them to eat vegetables. It’s a reassuring voice, and one that the actor has built an entire artistic legacy on.
Midway through the film, we see the Captain conducting a military funeral as his troops bury the bodies of their colleagues at sea. The Captain is observing the burial as much as supervising it. When one of the bodies – that of a caring African-American messhand – gets slightly entangled before dropping, he flinches. But he can’t look like he’s flinching, just as a father can’t afford to look devastated at the loss of his own father. Or, in 1942, just as a European can’t look consumed by the death of a Jew. It’s a profoundly personal moment that manages to capture the racial culture of a nation just as much as the cultural chaos of a time. And it’s a Tom Hanks moment – where he aids a story to zoom in and pull out at once. After all, Greyhound gives him the binoculars to accomplish this.