As a producer, actor, writer and director, Tom Hanks has shown deep admiration for the courage of World War II Armed Forces, in work encompassing Saving Private Ryan, TV projects Band of Brothers, The Pacific and the upcoming Masters of the Air, as well as the documentaries He Has Seen War and Beyond All Boundaries. The theme of American valor and heroism also has been a thread through many of his roles. So it’s no surprise that Hanks was drawn to adapt and star in a screen version of C.S. Forester’s 1955 historical maritime novel, The Good Shepherd.
Roll your eyes about the return to familiar territory if you must, but Greyhound is a taut action thriller that exerts a sustained grip. Originally scheduled for theatrical release from Sony in June, the project is one of a handful of star vehicles sidelined by the COVID-19 shutdown that have bounced to Apple TV+, where it should find an appreciative audience.
Seaworthy and stirring.
Director Aaron Schneider, like Hanks, is not new to WWII-related material, having won an Oscar for his 2003 short film Two Soldiers, a home-front drama adapted from William Faulkner’s story about Mississippi brothers whose patriotic spirit is stirred by the shock of Pearl Harbor. Schneider and Hanks have fashioned a robust, old-fashioned entertainment infused with sufficient integrity to counter its inevitable turn into sentimental nobility in the concluding act.
Hanks milks that familiar moment to a movie-ish excess slightly out of step with the economy of the rest of the film, accompanied by the requisite orchestral swell. But unimpeachable sincerity has long been a signature of the veteran actor’s career, and that quality prevents Greyhound from ever slipping into the vanity-project trap. This is one of Hanks’ more subdued recent performances, unlike his galvanizing work in, say, Captain Phillips or The Post. But playing Captain Ernest Krause, he embodies the selfless, clenched-jaw purposefulness of the Greatest Generation with persuasive conviction and moving humility.
As screenwriter, Hanks strips down the story to its essence, largely dispensing with both preamble and post-ordeal exhalation, focusing almost entirely on the nail-biting experience of the hellish voyage. The movie fully immerses the audience in battle, owing something to the intensity of both the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan and the combat sequences in Dunkirk. I confess I approached it with a certain weariness, expecting Sully on a boat, but found myself swiftly reeled in.
The minimal prelude is a single San Francisco scene in December, 1941, in which Krause suggests it’s time he and his late-in-life sweetheart Evelyn (Elisabeth Shue, in what’s virtually a cameo) became engaged. She puts him off until his return, quietly conveying the steep odds against him surviving the dangerous journey. His long-stalled first commission to command a ship is one of a wave of such hurried elevations in rank after Pearl Harbor for veteran U.S. Navy officers who have never seen combat. An early shot of Krause praying in his cabin signals both his faith and his fear.
Krause is captain of the Fletcher-class destroyer code-named Greyhound, leader of three other light warships assigned to protect a convoy of 37 merchant vessels carrying troops and crucial supplies across the North Atlantic to England. The action is concentrated on the middle stretch of the journey known as the “Black Pit,” where surveillance aircraft from both sides are out of range, putting the zig-zagging boats at the mercy of German submarines that lurk in a wolf-pack blockade.
The movie charts that treacherous crossing over three days, broken down according to watch hours, at a time when the stealthy U-boats were more sophisticated than the Navy sonar equipment used to detect them. The elimination of almost all the standard scenes of reprieve or personal backstories — aside from Krause’s brief memory flashes of his last encounter with Evelyn — makes for an exciting open-sea combat experience.
Director Schneider and nimble cinematographer Shelly Johnson shot the film on a decommissioned, fully restored WWII-era destroyer that serves as a museum in the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge. But the bulk of the action unfolds in the close quarters of the boat’s pilothouse and bridge, recreated on a soundstage set, which fits the claustrophobic nature of the drama. The seascapes and battle scenes rely on solidly convincing CGI, with frequent panoramic and overhead drone shots expanding the visual scope. Aside from the warm tones of the Evelyn scene, the color palette is heavy on grays, muted blues and greens, appropriate to a voyage in which the menace is deadliest at night.
The film is essentially a character study of the stern but fair-minded Krause, so while other men register in his orbit — including executive officer Cole (Stephen Cole), gunnery officer Lopez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and sonar operator Bushnell (the lead’s son Chet Hanks) — this is very much a portrait of a first-time captain wrestling with self-doubt over his ability to keep his crew alive. From the moment the Greyhound first encounters the enemy, the men on board become a rattled collective rather than a group of individuals, but shortage of character definition is somehow never a drawback.
The one character other than Krause who makes a lingering impression is Cleveland (Rob Morgan), one of the Black messmates in the segregated crew. His constant concern that the captain needs sustenance becomes a recurring motif as he delivers tray after tray of food, all of them sent back with only the coffee consumed. There’s no attempt at revisionist, period-inauthentic racial attitudes here. But both Hanks and Morgan skillfully underplay the mutual respect between the two men at opposite ends of the rank chain, yielding a solemnly affecting interlude midway through the action.
The combat sequences come thick and fast in the hands of editors Sidney Wolinsky and Mark Czyzewski. These cover the Greyhound running down a U-boat; the confusion of friendly fire under the cloak of darkness; the momentary elation of a successful hit on a German vessel; and dodging torpedoes with some frantic swerves and panicked “Hard rudder left!”-type commands — the alarming tilt of the ship at one point makes you hold your breath.
One hairy moment involves a near collision with a merchant ship from the convoy. Another intense sequence results when the sonar picks up a German decoy designed to eat up the U.S. boat’s limited supply of depth charges and monopolize the Americans’ attention while the German fleet targets another ship. Terrific underwater footage follows the accelerated path of torpedoes and bomb drops. A heavy exchange of deck gunfire results in casualties (the terror of bullets slicing through the air is rendered with vivid force in the expert sound design), and Krause insists on a full-company funeral service at sea in dress uniforms.
The sense of navigating infested waters in near blindness is periodically underlined by communications between the Greyhound and the other Allied Forces boats, with each break in radio silence at risk of being picked up by the Germans. While it’s doubtless true to military history, the one element that comes off a little hammy is the psychological-warfare transmissions of a German submarine commander identified as Grey Wolf (voiced by Thomas Kretschmann), gloating over the death count and snarling taunts like “The Grey Wolf is so very hungry,” or “The sea favors the Grey Wolf on the hunt, not the Hound on the run.”
By contrast, the use of Blake Neely’s ominous score shows admirable restraint for the most part, its subtle strains blending with the ping of sonar equipment and using drumming to inject urgency as the situation grows more perilous.
To Hanks’ credit, his screenplay mostly downplays the heroics while fully acknowledging the bravery and sacrifice of the men who fought in the Battle of the Atlantic, a WWII campaign relatively underrepresented in movies. (The Oscar-nominated 1981 feature that put director Wolfgang Petersen on the map, Das Boot, viewed the conflict from the German side.) With thorough verisimilitude, Greyhound depicts just one crossing among countless over a six-year period in which 3,500 ships carrying millions of tons of cargo were sunk and 72,200 souls were lost.
The film closes with archival footage of real convoy ships and troops over the end credits, summoning a dignified patriotism that should play well to domestic audiences presently starved for moral uplift.
Production companies: Playtone, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Stage 6 Films, in association with Bron Creative, Zhengfu Pictures, Sycamore Pictures, FilmNation Entertainment
Distributor: Apple TV+
Cast: Tom Hanks, Elisabeth Shue, Stephen Graham, Rob Morgan, Josh Wiggins, Tom Brittney, William Pullen, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Karl Glusman, Chet Hanks, Jimi Stanton, Matthew Helm, Devin Druid
Director: Aaron Schneider
Screenplay: Tom Hanks, based on the novel The Good Shepherd, by C.S. Forester
Producer: Gary Goetzman
Executive producers: Aaron Ryder, Steven Shareshian, Alison Cohen, Michael A. Jackman, Milan Popelka, David Coatsworth, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Cloth, Richard McConnell, Anjay Nagpal, Han Sanping, Alex Zhang, Ben Nearn, Tom Rice
Director of photography: Shelly Johnson
Production designer: David Crank
Costume designer: Julie Weiss
Music: Blake Neely
Editors: Sidney Wolinsky, Mark Czyzewski
Visual effects supervisor: Nathan McGuinness
Visual effects producer: Mike Chambers
Casting: Francine Maisler
Rated PG-13, 92 minutes