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As unabashedly square, old-fashioned and good-natured as its star and writer, Greyhound is an effective naval thriller and a real cinematic throwback. In fact, if you look for other famous depictions of the Second World War’s Battle of the Atlantic, you’ll find that most of them – Corvette K-225, The Cruel Sea, The Enemy Below , etc. – were made either during the war or within a decade or so of its completion.
That’s also the case with the source material, C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shepherd , published in 1955. It tells the fictional story of Commander George Krause, a career Navy officer whose first command is a destroyer (call sign Greyhound) leading a convoy across the North Atlantic in February 1942.
Beset by doubts and fears, consoled by faith, Krause struggles to lead his men to safety over two tense days in the Black Pit, the nickname for the region that was outside the range of cover by land-based aircraft. It was an area where Nazi U-Boats practiced their wolfpack tactics with a terrifying effectiveness that would claim tens of thousands of lives over the course of the war.
In just his third turn as big-screen screenwriter – after 1996’s That Thing You Do! and that unfortunate 2011 rom-com Larry Crowne – Hanks whittles the book down to a streamlined 92 minutes (and for some reason changes his character’s first name to Ernest). After a brief, unedifying meeting in San Francisco with the woman he loves (Elisabeth Shue), Krause ships out, and the film’s opening 25 minutes function as a perfectly timed mini-movie, as he battles a single U-Boat intent on doing as much damage as it can.
Don’t you dare think that Hanks would play someone who didn’t care!
This section highlights several of the story’s motifs, including Krause’s desire for more comfortable clothing to be fetched from his cabin; his inability to consume anything short of coffee, despite appetizing meals delivered from the mess; and his occasional mispronunciation and/or confusion of names of his subordinates – none of which means he doesn’t care, mind you. Don’t you dare think that Hanks would play someone who didn’t care!
We also learn the style of cinematographer-turned-director Aaron Schneider. Here, repetition is the order of the day, as Krause scurries from one side of the bridge to the other, occasionally popping outside to hold binoculars up to his face as he scans the grey seas for the shark-like protrusion of a surfacing U-Boat, or the white-water ripple of an approaching torpedo. The sparse dialogue is also mostly an echo chamber, as orders get passed down the line from commander to bridge crew to engine room and back again.
It has the potential to be deadly dull, but the constant threat and tension – plus the fact that there’s never any real downtime between attacks – make it a nail-biting experience, as the screenplay focuses on military tactics instead of personalities.
We learn little about the protagonists except that Krause takes no pleasure in killing. When the first U-Boat is destroyed, his second-in-command remarks: “50 less Krauts.” “Yes,” agrees the commander, “50 souls.” And when his ship runs low on ammunition, he murmurs to himself a phrase from the Book of Matthew: “Wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove.” It’s especially appropriate as it’s from a passage in which Jesus describes his disciples as sheep among wolves.
Stephen Graham plays Charlie Cole, said second-in-command. It was distracting for me because I have a strong memory of him playing a First World War soldier in 2017’s Journey’s End , using his own northern English accent. Here he sounds unexpectedly though believably American.
Greyhound , like just about every other major motion picture release of the last three months, was originally set to debut in theatres, and now finds itself on a streaming service. It’s not the worst fit. On the one hand, it feels like a big-screen release of the 1950s; on the other, most of us ended up watching movies of that era on our televisions in the 1970s. Greyhound feels like a Benjamin Button of a movie. It was born old. But that doesn’t make it any less appealing.
Greyhound is available July 10 on AppleTV+.
3.5 stars out of 5
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020