Tom Hanks plays with battleships in a taut and impressionistic passion project

David G. Hughes on Aaron Schneider’s ‘Greyhound’ (2020)

It’s rather easy to imagine Tom Hanks spending his downtime putting together Airfix models. He’s an actor who’s always maintained a boyish interest in the theatre of war, particularly the Second World War. Whether it’s his role in Saving Private Ryan (1998), a producer-writer credit for HBO series Band of Brothers (2001), or the rough seas with the newly released Greyhound, a war story set during the Battle of the Atlantic.

Throughout his career, Hanks has made it a point to dramatise and make known the undoubtedly heroic deeds of the everyman, be it in Captain Phillips (2013), Bridge of Spies (2015), Sully (2016), The Post (2017), or A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). His interest in World War II, then, is almost surely down to the fact that it represents a conflict of moral good. Indeed his entire artistic project can be acutely summarised by the question: what is it to be a good man? It’s a fair and necessary question, never out-of-date, although it’s contrary to the zeitgeist we sit within. For this interest in goodness often manifests in the depiction of benign and respected authority—a notion that sits in disarray today. Greyhound marks Hanks’ fifth time playing a captain, after Lovell, Miller, Phillips and Sullenberger, and it’s quite clear he’s unprepared, like his frequent collaborator Steven Spielberg, to abandon values associated with tradition, authority, heroism, and the virtue of the American story—he’s a true believer and seeks to embody the best of his country. 

It’s an admirable and often quite touching ambition. People often mistake the sole role of art to be oppositional, something that sticks it to “The Man”. But this is historically illiterate, for it has been the role of artists to glorify and better the state since ancient times. Hanks is deeply interested in the American soul, and in some ways he has become its on-screen avatar. Greyhound fits firmly in his pantheon as a film about a thoroughly good man with a civic conscious.

But it also marks the first occasion Hanks makes this an explicitly Christian concern. His Ernest Krause is a Bible-quoting naval commander who says grace before every small bite on the deck and kneels before God right before the devilish Nazi Kriegsmarine, announced by a squealing musical leitmotif, starts attacking his supply convoy on its way to Liverpool, England. The Nazi U-Boat leading the attack—Greywolf—taunts the Allied fleet over the radio and even, to make the religious allusions stronger, refers to the convoy as a flock and Greyhound—the titular Fletcher-class destroyer—its shepherd. Warfare is one thing, but impolite and indecorous taunting is another.

Between a dog and a wolf, Hanks is quite literally positioned as the underdog in the fight, which is where he works best. While Hanks is interested in military history, he doesn’t strike as a militaristic person: an important distinction that allows you to see the commander as a normal man tossed into war, rather than a professional soldier. To make matters more intense, this is his first Atlantic crossing. It’s a test of his mettle, and he’s not an infallible figure. Hanks performance is indeed good, especially when relaying the subtleties of a man trying to maintain his position as the trustworthy leader of the pack, even as the all-important chain of command gets a bit shaky. Again: it’s about the legitimacy of authority.

This is a taut and trim war picture, telling its tale under 90 mins. Hanks has written a well-researched script too, which is made almost entirely of muffled naval jargon, of which I understood about 30%. But that’s no bad thing. Between the constant bleep of an unreliable sonar, the crashing waves, the screaming orders, and the occasional dramatic silence, the film functions as a pleasing musique concrète drama. And the editing gives it all a rhythmic flow.

Visually the film is quite arresting, too. Director Aaron Schneider does a good job orchestrating the affair and makes strong visual choices. Its grey, blue, and black colour palette gives it an effectively dour aesthetic, and the contrast between the set-based cabin interiors and obviously computerised exteriors recalls old war pictures using rear projection. However, I could do without the fake water droplets splashing the camera, an attempt at docu-drama immersion that, instead, makes you want to wipe the screen in irritability.

The film is strongest at its most artificial. It’s a highly impressionistic movie: flames burn in the dark, destroyer artillery lights up the sky, and the northern lights sit above the storm clouds of war (the presence of God, perhaps?). All this serves to aestheticise the battle. While generally considered a sin by today’s standards, the aestheticisation of war remains one of art’s most fruitful endeavours—a tradition Greyhound is happy to partake in. In this way, it’s a fascinating and unusual picture: a traditionalist vision that also, at times, feels like a ‘B’ picture that happens to have a major star.   

None of which is a bad thing, either. Parts reminded me of David Ayer’s equally ‘B’-inspired and exceptional Fury (2014), both sharing an interest in the claustrophobia and minutiae of warfare, only in a cabin rather than a tank. There’s never the question of Hanks going as dirty as that film, which showed while wars can be righteous, the everyday acts of war are unambiguously horrific. Greyhound also departs from the valueless forensic depiction of warfare seen in Dunkirk (2017). For Hanks, a righteous war is won by righteous gentlemen. Whichever version is closer to the reality you can decide. I suspect all are, but Greyhound is undeniably limited by its moral framework.  

But in between the effective cat-and-mouse naval games, Greyhound communicates moments of weight because of its moral stance, not in spite of it. For example, the Captain can’t bring himself to celebrate his first U-Boat kill after it’s confirmed through the sight of a floating body and the reality registers. He spots it, turns away, and wonders whether he has the fortitude of war. The loss of “50 souls” won’t be celebrated, even as his uncouth Brit allies cheer “More food for the fishes.”

Greyhound is about a man trying to be as good as his circumstance can allow and make the right decisions (the film pays special attention to the unsophisticated, pre-digital methods of relaying information and communicating orders). So it’s a morality tale. And at a time when the Union’s unifying metanarrative is in disrepute, Hanks will always be there to fight the good fight, an artist-as-soldier, unalloyed patriot, and solidly good man, pointing to the best of us.

‘Greyhound’ is available now on Apple TV. 

Director Aaron Schneider

Writer Tom Hanks, based on a novel by C.S. Forester

Cinematographer Shelly Johnson

Editor Mark Czyzewski, Sidney Wolinsky

Cast Tom Hanks, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue

Duration 91 minutes

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.