greyhound premiere

Tom Hanks’ obsession with quiet, persistent heroism first became truly evident with Apollo 13. That 1995 film is a thrilling piece of real-life drama, in which there are no real villains and heroism is embodied by good, honorable men doing good, honorable work, both in outer space and on the ground. There’s not a lot of flash or flamboyance in the film, nor in subsequent history-driven miniseries and films either starring or overseen by Hanks, from Band of Brothers to Saving Private Ryan. But the height of quiet, unassuming heroism is best typified by the events depicted in Greyhound. This new war drama aspires to be peak Dad Movie, yet winds up like a History Channel movie with a big-name lead.

Hanks, who wrote the film, plays Commander Ernest Krause of the U.S. Navy, circa February 1942. Krause has been given his first command of a convoy of ships traversing the North Atlantic Ocean to transport important cargo to Allied forces under constant threat of attack by German U-Boats. The entirety of Greyhound (with the exception of one flashback) takes place on the USS Keeling, bearing the call sign that serves as the film’s title, as Krause tries to bring the convoy to safety during a 48-hour period without any support from Allied fighter planes. 

It’s not hyperbole to state as much: though there is a great deal of action, the movie really is this compact. (Excluding the closing credits and the opening studio logos, Greyhound clocks in at just 80 minutes long.) This isn’t automatically a bad thing, though it does serve as both a strength and weakness. On one hand, Greyhound cannot be criticized for overstaying its welcome or of spending time on wasteful tangents. On the other hand, the brevity of the story is such that when the closing credits inform us how many thousands of sailors died throughout the war during convoy trips such as the one depicted in Greyhound, you may be inspired to think, “…Wait. That’s it?”

Perhaps this attitude inspired Sony Pictures to send Greyhound to streaming. Originally, the film was slated to open in mid-June, perfectly timed with the Father’s Day weekend. The onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic made an in-theater experience impossible, and instead of waiting, Sony sold the film to Apple for premiere on Apple TV+ this Friday. This strategy may yet pay off for Sony – we’re merely days removed from the seemingly massive success of Hamilton arriving on Disney+ – but it’s just as likely that people don’t know the film even exists. You’d think the alternative would be true, because this movie has an easy enough selling point: it’s Tom Hanks in a World War II movie, serving as a captain over a group of young military men. 

But Saving Private Ryan, this is not. (Its ambitions are clearly much smaller.) Hanks has indeed crafted an extraordinarily swift and tight screenplay, yet he’s also chosen to strip almost every possible bit of characterization from everyone on screen. (Roughly half of the dialogue is comprised of orders being given or repeated, or of current conditions being described or repeated.) Aside from a quick scene in which we see Krause and his girlfriend (Elisabeth Shue), occurring just days after the Pearl Harbor attack, and a couple of brief glimpses of Krause bowing in prayer, all we know of the captain is that he’s a mostly even-keeled leader attempting to make impossible choices all while being taunted by an unseen German U-Boat captain. 

Krause’s second-in-command (Stephen Graham) is by his side through thick and thin, as are the other sailors on the ship. That’s really all we know of them, with no hints of their home lives or any genuine sense of personality. Hanks is one of the most naturally charming actors to ever grace the silver screen, so it’s baffling to watch a film – one he wrote – where he’s doing his damnedest to stifle that charm, and to limit the actors around him from displaying much charm or energy. What occurs here may be true to life, but as depicted, it has no dramatic heft.

The action scenes are helmed in a serviceable enough way; though Hanks wrote the film, directing duties go to Aaron Schneider, whose workmanlike approach mirrors the events on screen. With a reported budget of $50 million, though, and such a small-scale story, there are two questions to ask here. First, did Sony really think it wouldn’t have made back a mild amount of money by holding this for later theatrical release? And second…why was this ever going to be a theatrical release? Those may seem diametrically opposed, but they speak to the contradictory nature of the film. Though Greyhound is based on a novel by C.S. Forester, its compact pacing and story suggest a real event that’s treated so respectfully by Hanks and Schneider as to remove any sense of dramatic weight. The execution of the story would be more at home as a short documentary, not a dramatized story. 

Greyhound looks the part, if the part was a cable movie event. A good number of major stars from the 1980s have transitioned to appearing in event-like TV series, such as Kevin Costner on the continuing drama Yellowstone. Tom Hanks is still too big of a star to make that shift, but Greyhound feels like a stepping stone. Where previous wartime productions that Hanks helped spearhead had the grit, suspense, and complex characterization that defines great modern drama, Greyhound is a stripped-down touring production with an unexpectedly recognizable lead. It’s a serviceable way to spend 90 minutes, but serviceable isn’t saying much.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.