Tom Hanks has a knack for playing courageous captains who constantly beat the odds. He also has a habit of starring in or producing sterling World War II dramas. This holds true from Captain Phillips to Sully on one side of this paradigm, and Band of Brothers to The Pacific on the other. But for the first time since the one that started it all, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the two old reliable tropes intersect once more with Greyhound, a new naval thriller premiering on Apple TV+.
Yet, to borrow from another famous World War II event, this might’ve been a bridge too far—or a captain too generic. After getting deserved Oscar recognition for Ryan (and being unfairly overlooked for Phillips and Sully), Hanks attempts to return to form in Greyhound, but cuts a much more relaxed figure than his crisp naval uniform would suggest. Despite also being the screenwriter of Greyhound, he finds little of that classic inspiration here, just as the film fails to find an exciting story. Then again, that might be its own kind of baffling achievement when its harrowing premise centers on a merchant ship convoy being hunted across the Atlantic by a pack of German U-Boats, like wolves hounding a wounded deer.
The nightmarish scenario in question occurs during February 1942 when Hanks’ Capt. Ernest Krause has the unenviable task of commanding the USS Keeling, one of only four warships charged with protecting another 37 merchant vessels as they cross the Atlantic, headed with supplies toward England. Despite being a Navy man all his life, Hanks’ Krause is on his first mission as both a captain and commander—Pearl Harbor has found the Navy now relying on some of its lesser respected officers. And on the day the movie begins, Krause’s convoy is entering “the Black Pit,” the stretch of North Atlantic out of reach from aerial cover and Allied planes on either side of the pond.
So of course the worst possible scenario happens on Krause’s first crossing: a pack of German U-Boats zero in on these vessels and are picking them off one at a time, leaving it up to Krause to figure out a way to lead his ships to safe harbor.
Based on a C.S. Forester novel I never read called The Good Shepherd, Greyhound has the makings of a crackerjack epic in the margins when you squint. With its sparse and bare-bones premise about men at arms attempting to survive the night (or several nights), this should be a claustrophobic thriller paradoxically set on the vastness of a stormy sea. Yet both Hanks’ script and Aaron Schneider’s direction leave a lot to be desired.
Heavy on nautical jargon and naval speak, the minutiae that likely adds slow-boil texture on a novel’s page drowns the film in procedural inertia, and the complete absence of concern for any of the supporting characters or junior officers and sailors makes Hanks’ Krause the only show in town. But there’s not a lot to see there.
Always superb at playing noble, even (or especially) under duress, Hanks provides Krause with a familiar dignity. But too little is made of the potential in his not being a tested officer. There’s the occasional off-handed remark that suggests a mental lapse on the captain’s part, or a sideways glance from a subordinate, but any potential of Krause turning into Humphrey Bogart’s Capt. Queeg—or just the audience fearing it—is squandered by a film unable to imagine Hanks as anything better than a two-dimensional hero. Instead of a cracking Bogie, we get another variation on Mr. Smith, which when trapped in a floating vacuum makes his constant religious platitudes ring hollow.
Of course a major contribution to this failure may be Schneider’s flat direction. Only Schneider’s second directorial effort intended for the big screen (even if it never got there), Greyhound has a listless quality that cannot seem to wrap its arms around the potential for white-knuckled dread. While there are a few standout moments, like the first time a U-Boat crosses beneath Krause’s ship, or when they hear the earliest taunts from U-Boat sadists over the radio seeking to psychologically torture their prey, in the main the film moves at a perfunctory pace that better resembles an unpleasant pleasure cruise. The lack of convincing CGI for those gloomy waves only makes matters worse.
In different hands, it is easy to imagine Greyhound as a gripping thriller. Hanks obviously believed in the material, and considering one of his only two other screenplays includes the all-time classic That Thing You Do!, his instincts are obviously pretty sharp. But even without the coronavirus pandemic cancelling this movie’s release, Greyhound was clearly destined for the battleship graveyard beneath the waves. This way though, at least it has the dignity of no one seeing it sink.
Greyhound is available on Apple TV+ on Friday, July 10.