Tom Hanks' Greyhound is a thrilling World War II popcorn flick lacking character depth
A spoiler-free review of Hanks' latest World War II film that is good enough to warrant a free Apple TV+ trial, but doesn't match the heights of classics like Saving Private Ryan and Dunkirk.
Somewhere around 3,000 nautical miles separate Liverpool from the Eastern Seaboard. Nowadays, aboard a cruise ship, the journey is an uneventful week at sea. Back in the early 1940s, when the vessels making the crossing weren’t cruise ships packed with tourists (and COVID-19), but warships protecting merchant ships stuffed to the ceiling with supplies and troops that Allied forces in Europe so desperately needed to push back and eventually eradicate the Nazi war machine, the voyage was far less straightforward. Air cover disappeared at a certain point over the middle of the Atlantic, meaning Nazi U-boats were free to stalk the Allied ships from behind, below, and all around them, picking off ships like a pack of wolves hunting a vulnerable herd of elk. A lot can and most certainly will go wrong during a 3,000-mile journey across an entire ocean during a global war against pure and utter evil. It’s in those 3,000 nautical miles that Greyhound sets sail.
Greyhound — Tom Hanks’ latest foray into World War II that was supposed to be released theatrically in June, but was instead released for streaming on Apple TV+ on Friday as COVID-19 continues to disrupt the movie industry — tells a chapter of the story of the Battle of the Atlantic. Historically speaking, the Battle of the Atlantic persisted for nearly six years. Greyhound provides a glimpse into that battle by tracking the harrowing transatlantic crossing of a convoy of Allied ships bringing supplies from North America to Britain in February 1942, shortly after America officially entered the war.
Hanks, who also wrote the screenplay, plays Ernest Krause, the captain of a destroyer — callsign Greyhound — one of four warships charged with protecting 37 troop and supply ships against a pack of German U-boats. This isn’t Hanks’ first time playing a captain (there’s Captain Lovell in Apollo 13, Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, Captain Phillips in Captain Phillips, and Captain Sullenberger in Sully), but this is Captain Krause’s first transatlantic crossing. It doesn’t take him long to realize that he’ll be lucky if it also isn’t his last transatlantic crossing.
Despite the distance, Greyhound isn’t a long movie at a crisp 91 minutes. The movie itself doesn’t depict the entire crossing. Instead, it zeroes in on the days at sea without air support. The movie begins with Allied planes above the convoy turning back home as the convoy proceeds into an area known as the “Black Pit.” All they can offer is good luck. Fifty hours remain until air support on the other side of the Atlantic can afford the convoy with protection. For those 50 hours, the convoy is left entirely to its own devices against U-boats that eliminate ships one by one and taunt the surviving ships every so often by invading their airwaves with menacing messages. It’s up to Krause to get the convoy through the Black Pit before the U-boats obliterate them entirely. To do so, he needs to hunt down the U-boats as the ocean swells around them. What follows is 91 minutes of near-nonstop action.
Nearly the entire film is spent on the bridge of the destroyer as Krause marches back and forth through the openings on either side giving directions to his crew, scouring the open ocean for signs of lurking U-boats, listening to sonar reports that provide hints at where the Germans could be hiding beneath the surface, watching flares light up over the open ocean as U-boats claim Allied ship after Allied ship, tracking torpedoes along the surface, directing his men to steer the destroyer out of danger as multiple torpedoes at different trajectories head their way, and launching depth charges at unseen targets.
It’s a mess. The lighting is poor. Visibility is minimal. The ocean swells around them. The action is frenetic.
It’d be harrowing enough if the only objective was to survive the stormy seas. It’s genuinely terrifying knowing U-boats prowl beneath the surface, armed with guns, torpedoes, and sonar decoys to disguise their scent. When the Americans drop depth charges in areas they’re nearly certain a U-boat hides, they can’t know for certain if they’ve destroyed their target until the water changes color or the explosion from beneath the surface is abnormally explosive. Even then, they’re sometimes left guessing — hoping.
If you thought the Spitfire portion of Dunkirk did well to demonstrate just how chaotic and difficult dogfighting is, you’ll appreciate the levels to which Greyhound goes to depict the intricacies of naval warfare. It’s admittedly tough to follow with all the jargon flying around like mist from a wave cascading against the hull and admittedly repetitive as the film goes to great lengths to highlight the procedure of naval warfare, but that was likely an intentional attempt to mimic the realities of war on the open seas in the early 1940s. Procedure was the only way to survive the chaos.
As such, Greyhound excels as a war movie. It succeeds in offering a hyper-specific glimpse at "the ‘longest, largest, and most complex’ naval battle in history.” It almost feels like a videogame, but I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. Greyhound is what a movie like Midway — an absolute abomination of a film, by the way — should’ve been.
The action never relents. It’s uncompromising in its realistic portrayal of naval warfare. The jargon flies fast without explanation. It’s clear that Hanks is a total Navy nerd.
Krause spends every waking hour on his feet and on the move. The destroyer’s bridge isn’t big, but Krause paces the length of the Atlantic over the course of the film. He eventually swaps boots for slippers as blood oozes through his socks. Meals are prepared for him, but he never has time to eat. The plates of food wind up on the floor of the bridge in tatters as the destroyer weaves in, out, over, and through an onslaught of angry waves. There’s minimal time to waste on personal bullshit. In that way, it reminded me of Dunkirk. There are several minor characters in Greyhound who serve a purpose in the story, but we know absolutely nothing about them besides their jobs. Their names are drowned out by the howling wind. They don’t have backstories. They’re meant to be blank faces. They’re young men strictly there to do a job. And that’s all we need to know.
The brief runtime works in Greyhound’s favor. It’s damn near impossible to sustain tension over the course of an entire movie, unless the movie is lean. There’s seldom any wasted moments. The movie is broken up into several sections, each distinguished by the beginning and end of a German attack. When one section ends — when the warships temporarily fend off the U-boats and live to sail for another few hours — it almost immediately leaps forward into the next German attack several hours later. There’s not much space to stop and breathe and recover — again, a likely attempt to mirror the way the sailors onboard felt during the crossing. You’ll be exhausted by the end of the film.
The story Greyhound tells is an important one. Without those troops and supplies being ferried over from North America to Europe, the Allies probably don’t successfully invade Normandy and win the war. Saving Private Ryan likely doesn’t ever happen. Anyone at least mildly interested in the history of World War II will find something appealing in Greyhound. Its commitment to detail is commendable.
But beyond being an impressive war movie, Greyhound flounders. For the most part, it doesn’t really aspire to be much more than a war movie. As I’ve said repeatedly in this space, I try to judge movies on what they’re trying to be. The only problem being, Greyhound does actually halfheartedly try to turn Krause into a compelling and reluctant hero with an interesting backstory, but mostly fails in that endeavor. For as committed as the film is to depicting the complexities of naval warfare, it takes an equally fickle approach to molding complex, human characters.
In the opening minutes, we’re told Krause is deeply religious. He prays before every meal. On his wall is a bible verse: “Yesterday, today, and forever.” He stops someone from transmitting a message from one ship to another so that he can tack on a “thank you” at the end. He’s terrified of making a mistake that’ll cost ships and lives. When a mistake is inevitably made, he laments it the next day when he’s forced to reckon with the consequences of that mistake, even though the mistake wasn’t his fault and there was nothing different he could’ve realistically done to avoid it. He still feels responsible. In short, he’s a Good Man. But that doesn’t automatically make him compelling. It doesn’t make him anymore interesting than any other hero in any other popcorn war movie.
All of those little character quirks are fine, especially when they’re depicted within the context of battle. It’s important for the hero to be distinct from everyone else in the face of unrelenting chaos. It helps the audience grab ahold of him in the midst of that mayhem.
But where the film runs astray is in the opening minutes, when it jarringly cuts away — for the first and only time — from the convoy in the Atlantic to San Francisco two months before Krause’s first crossing. At what appears to be a hotel bar, Krause meets with his love interest, Evelyn, to exchange Christmas gifts. He gives her an ornament for her tree. She gives him a toy ship and slippers. He tries to convince her to come with him to the Caribbean for training so that he can ask her to marry him “on a tropical beach” before he ships off to war. She declines his offer, preferring to wait for the world to calm down.
The movie quickly cuts back to the Atlantic two months later. It never leaves the Atlantic again. That’s the only glimpse into their relationship we’re afforded. It’s tonally bizarre. It’s a complete waste of time.
It’s not that the movie fails to hearken back to that conversation. Slippers come into play. The toy ship is beside his bed onboard the destroyer. He sees her face. The movie very much tries to make his relationship with Evelyn relevant. It’s just that we’re not really given a reason to care about their relationship, because the movie doesn’t invest itself in developing it. And if the movie doesn’t want to invest itself in the relationship, why would we? We’re given that one brief scene. The rest of the movie is spent at sea. Yet the film acts as if we’re supposed to feel the same pain he feels as he sails farther and farther away from the love of his life and into war.
If the movie had simply cut that scene, while still alluding to a relationship he left behind, it would’ve worked far better. That one scene adds absolutely nothing to the story or the character. If anything, it makes their relationship seem empty and hollow and disingenuous, because the two actors — Hanks and Elisabeth Shue — share even less chemistry than Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman in the Star Wars prequels, which is to say, they share no chemistry whatsoever. For that scene to have worked, the chemistry needed to be so electric — think Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in (the underrated) The Adjustment Bureau — that we immediately buy into their love. Instead, the chemistry was so dull that if you would’ve told me they were brother and sister (and they had cut the part where Krause brought up the prospect of marriage), I would’ve believed you. Except I would’ve assumed they were the kind of siblings who only loved each other because they were supposed to. When she postpones his proposal until after the war, it’s impossible to tell if she genuinely means it or if she’s using the war as an excuse to get out of a engagement she doesn’t want to be stuck in. It’s impossible to know one way or the other for the simple reason that there’s no romantic chemistry between the two actors. You’re not sure if that’s intentional or just a casting and scripting mishap — I presume it’s the latter.
Similarly, the film tries to develop a relationship between Krause and the cook who is always bringing Krause meals that he can’t eat as the fleet around him faces a constant barrage of doom. But it fails to turn it into a compelling relationship. It feels hollow. You understand what the film is trying to do. You can see it exerting the minimum level of effort to build those personal ties. But that only makes its failure worse. Either commit to the bit or leave it alone entirely.
Again, it’d be one thing if the film didn’t try to develop these personal relationships. Instead, it haphazardly tries to shoe-in these relationships in the brief moments of respite. If the movie wanted to make the characters compelling on a personal level, it should’ve gone the whole nine yards. There should’ve been more flashbacks to his relationship back at home. It should’ve been a two-hour film with an added 30 minutes away from sea. Or — and this is the route I would’ve taken — it should’ve been an 85-minute movie without that one flashback. Adding one five-minute scene, thinking that alone would be enough to turn Krause into a compelling character, is the film’s biggest flaw. We don’t need to see a brief snapshot of it to know that men in war have loved ones back at home — war or no war, most of us do. Imagine if Dunkirk had added one five-minute scene, after the mesmerizing leaflet scene to begin the movie, where Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy says goodbye to his girlfriend. It’d be equally jarring and pointless while unnecessarily removing you from a movie that is otherwise nonstop tension.
The action at sea is compelling. It’s wholly unique to the film, and it’s executed at an elite level. Krause’s case of transatlanticism isn’t. It’s a shallower version of a wartime romance that we’ve seen countless other times, and it’s executed at a low level.
Greyhound isn’t above reproach. It’s flawed. But none of this is intended to condemn the film as bad. It’s not at all bad. It’s actually good. It’s anchored by a strong lead performance — as every Hanks movie is. The action is gripping. The visuals are awesome. The score is effective. The sound design is impressive. It can be difficult at times to fully hear the dialogue, but that’s most likely by design. I don’t imagine hearing words is easy while standing onboard a warship that is dodging torpedoes through stormy seas and firing back with guns that require a legion of sailors to operate them. I’d rather hear the groans from the vessel and the sound of gunfire so that I feel as if I’m onboard that ship right there alongside Hanks. The battle sequences are expertly choreographed.
I feel similarly about Greyhound as I did about 7500, another recent straight to streaming release that excelled in building and sustaining tension, but fell short in other areas. Greyhound is good enough. It’s just missing depth to turn it into a great movie. It is, however, worth watching with a free Apple TV+ trial. Just don’t forget to cancel it.
It goes without saying — but I’ll say it anyway — that I feel for Hanks, who called it “an absolute heartbreak” that Greyhound didn’t receive the theatrical release it deserved and instead had to settle for a streaming service that nobody really cares about.
He’s not wrong, of course. Greyhound really would’ve been the perfect movie for theaters, the kind of film that a big screen and loud speakers actually enhances. It’s not quite the same at home — especially when you’re watching in an apartment complex that was built nearly 15 years prior to the events depicted onscreen and as a result, you’re forced to keep the volume low enough to avoid disturbing your upstairs neighbor who’s dealt with your Sunday, Monday, and Thursday night NFL podcasts for the past two years (boy, is he going to be excited when he learns I’ve quit my job and will be moving out at the end of the month, but I digress).
But even a change in release platforms couldn’t have elevated Greyhound from good to great. It continues a somewhat disappointing trend in Hanks’ recent filmography. From Sully to Bridge of Spies to The Post to Greyhound, he continues to churn out quality movies about important events that actually transpired, but are all lacking … something. Sully was weighed down by a dash of over-sentimentality. The Post never fully took off the way Spotlight did. Bridge of Spies felt far too conventional. Greyhound lacks compelling characters. I can’t remember a single character’s name (I’ve admittedly resorted to copying and pasting Krause’s name). The action is enthralling, but the characters that the action threatens are hollow. For an actor with as lengthy of a filmography as Hanks, there’s no shame in having a “good, but not great” floor. It’s a compliment, really. And to be clear, I liked all of those aforementioned movies. It’s just been a while since we’ve seen him hit his ceiling. Knowing how high his ceiling is — Saving Private Ryan, Castaway, Apollo 13, and most recently, Captain Phillips — makes his recent failure to hit those heights frustrating.
Again, though, Greyhound is good. A voyage across the Atlantic, with Hanks as your captain to guide you through a pack of Nazi U-boats, is one always worth taking. But it could’ve been better than good.
The end result is a fun popcorn World War II flick that leaves you wanting more. The good news? You can always fire up Saving Private Ryan or Dunkirk afterwards to satisfy that craving.
Greyhound might not be perfect. But as a film that markets itself as “the only thing more dangerous than the front lines was the fight to get there,” it makes for the perfect appetizer to more fulfilling and complete World War II movies.