Film review – Greyhound (2020)

Tom Hanks as Commander Ernest Krause in Greyhound

Over the last decade Tom Hanks’s acting career has confirmed his noble everyman persona, evoking classical Hollywood stars such as Gary Cooper, but with less of the strong silent type baggage and instead with a lot more compassion and empathy. Hanks’s roles have mostly steered him away from being perceived as a two-dimensional moral crusader to instead see him excel in more thoughtful and nuanced roles such as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller, 2019), possibly Hanks’s finest performance to date. For this reason it is somewhat disappointing that Greyhound – the next film he starred in as well as writing – is a distinctively old-fashioned war thriller with a simplistic presentation of America’s involvement in World War II, released at a time when the USA is in the grips of a powerful effort to reimagine its past as something far greater than it ever was.

Greyhound is adapted from the 1955 novel The Good Shepherd by C S Forester and Hanks stars as Commander Ernest Krause, on his first mission as captain of a destroyer codenamed Greyhound during the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II. Greyhound is one of the destroyers escorting a convey of Allied ships during a 50-hour period when the convey doesn’t have any air support and is especially vulnerable to attacks from German U-boats. The film begins with historical audio recordings about America entering WWII and a reference is made to Pearl Harbour early in the film, but otherwise the fact that America entered the war late is never fully grappled with and yet this film is determined to present Krause, and by extension the entire USA, as the ultimate heroes of the war. This is hardly something that only Greyhound is guilty of in the history of Hollywood WWII films, but it is just one element in its overall questionable representation of Krause’s heroic identity.

Very early in the film Krause is established to be deeply religious and his faith is key to both earning the trust and respect of his crew, and overcome his insecurities and doubts while trying to outmanoeuvre the U-boats. Krause commands Greyhound efficiently and makes practical yet compassionate no-nonsense decisions, while shunning personal glory and not taking pleasure in sinking enemy boats. While the version of the character in the novel is far more troubled and tormented, Hanks’s Krause is utterly stoic to the point that even his flaws are strengths. When he overlooks something or hesitates, he wisely listens to the experience and expertise of his crew. He is highly self-critical and doesn’t mind confiding in his executive officer Lieutenant Commander Charlie Cole (Stephen Graham) and asking for his opinion. While Hanks’s other roles as heroic captains in films such as Sully (Clint Eastwood, 2016) and Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013) have contained far more complexity and depth, as Krause he is almost Christ-like in his humility and drive, even to the extent of repeatedly deny himself food and being shown to bleed from his feet from the torment of being on them for so long. And if the strong reinforcement of his Christian beliefs wasn’t enough of an old-fashioned personal motivation for the ordeal he undergoes, Greyhound also established that there is a woman waiting for him at the end of his mission. His goodness and sense of duty is intrinsically tied to faith and family.

Another troubling aspect of the film is the treatment of race. There are only two black characters depicted as part of the crew and the only one with any substantial characterisation is the low-ranking George Cleveland (Rob Morgan) whose sole purpose seems to be to go out of his way to take care of Krause, in particular by always trying to bring him food. Given the recent focus on how films such as Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) are tarnished by very false and ugly suggestions that black people enjoyed living in servitude to their white masters, seeing a black character in a contemporary film – even though set in the past – who seems to only exist to serve a higher ranking officer is extremely unpleasant. This depiction becomes even more questionable when it becomes increasingly clear that the character of Cleveland only exists in the film to facilitate Krause’s emotional journey. Even without recent 2020 world events drawing a spotlight on how people of colour have been represented in cinema, the thoughtless way Cleveland is used in Greyhound is difficult to reconcile.

Given that Greyhound feels determined to evoke classic older films, it is little surprise that it avoids the trend in recent war films of attempting to humanise the enemy. Instead, the Germans are mainly represented by shots of the principle antagonist U-boat – the Grey Wolf – gliding through the water like a shark, and one scene where there are glimpses from a distance of German soldiers on top of another U-boat firing at the Allies boats. It is not a case where the enemy soldiers necessarily needed to be represented sympathetically or even be represented at all, but despite one moment where Krause reminds one of his crew members that German soldiers are still souls, Greyhound then makes a calculated point of making them abstract villains. The only times the Germans are given a voice is during the scenes where one of the officers on the Grey Wolf sends mocking and taunting transmissions to Greyhound. If that was not enough to establish an almost cartoonish villainy then these scenes also include this disembodied German voice howling like a wolf, obviously to evoke the Grey Wolf nickname of their U-boat, but also to further strip the enemy of their humanity by making them sound like beasts.

Greyhound is not just old-fashioned in how it recalls the ideology of war films from decades ago, but also in the fact that it’s an uncomplicated and entertainingly straightforward story about boats and submarines trying to blow each other up. In this regard, Greyhound does a commendable job in delivering a decent series of set-piece. A lot of the action involves the characters urgently relaying messages around the boat, there is loads of jargon, and there is an engaging focus on the technical and procedural side of the manoeuvres, all accompanied by an increasingly escalating film score to boost the tension. It’s adequate enough to sustain its adventurous mood, there’s an enjoyable and detailed focus on the practicalities of sea warfare in the 1940s, and the editing is suitably measured to ensure the film is taut and well-paced. Greyhound also manages a good balance between quieter reflective moments and the scenes depicting the skirmishes, which means it never feels overwhelming. However, it also never delivers the type of immersive experience that, for example, Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017) did where the use of film style to drive the narrative and engage the audience emotionally was far more seamless.

Greyhound also boasts an impressive production design, and the blue and grey tones throughout the film convey the oppressive cold the crew contend with as well as suggesting the bleak and vulnerable status of the ships in the convey while alone at sea. This is a decent war film, but it struggles by not being exceptional and by its deifying treatment of Krause with all his praying, romantic aspirations and being the symbol of American greatness who comes to save the British from the Germans. There is no doubt that it Greyhound is entertaining, but it makes too many choices that leave it resembling propaganda and maybe that’s not what the world needs right now.

Thomas Caldwell, 2020