The last time Tom Hanks played the captain of a big ship, he was fighting Somali pirates in “Captain Phillips,” a kinetic, immersive big-screen experience that was nominated for six Academy Awards. He’s now back at sea in “Greyhound,” but this time Hanks plays the commander of a World War II destroyer fighting Nazi submarines in the North Atlantic — and this time the film will be seen on a small screen, because Sony sold it to Apple TV+ for release this week.
That makes “Greyhound” the third recent war-related film to be given a predominantly streaming release, following Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” and Rod Lurie’s “The Outpost” — and like those two films, this one at times screams out to be seen on a bigger screen than most viewers will be able to give it.
On the other hand, “Greyhound” is pretty modest as war movies go. Written by Hanks and directed by Aaron Schneider, who hasn’t directed a feature since the quiet and touching character study “Get Low” in 2009, it’s a minimalist war film that treats combat as a job to be done and it concerned more with logistics than character arcs or emotional revelations.
Hanks has obviously covered some of this territory before, exploring WWII in the limited series “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” which he produced, and of course in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 war epic “Saving Private Ryan.” But as a screenwriter, Hanks’ most ambitious undertakings are the episodes he’s written for the multipart television series “From the Earth to the Moon” and “Band of Brothers.” There’s an understatement to the movies that Hanks has written, which sometimes works to the film’s benefit (“That Thing You Do!”) and sometimes not (“Larry Crowne”).
With “Greyhound,” Hanks turns a dangerous trip across the Atlantic Ocean into a character study of a man we never really know much about. Tense, efficient and admirable in its no-nonsense approach, the film is never quite as gripping as it ought to be.
“Greyhound” is based on the novel “The Good Shepherd” by “Horatio Hornblower” author C.S. Forester, with Hanks playing Captain Ernest Krause, who after years in the U.S. Navy has finally been given command of a destroyer, the USS Keeling (call sign: “Greyhound”). His first assignment as commander is to help escort a convoy of three dozen merchant vessels across the Atlantic, with the most dangerous portion of the voyage being the middle section — “The Black Pit” — where they’re out of range of air support and German submarines can pick them off almost at will.
Forester wrote Krause as brooding, often depressed man fighting feelings of inferiority, but Hanks doesn’t play up the angst or try to fill in the backstory. Yes, we see him exchange Christmas presents with his fiancée-to-be, played by Elisabeth Shue, in a soft-focus opening sequence that soon feels almost irrelevant — but we really don’t know a lot about the guy when he assumes command of the Keeling.
And from the point when we join the ship in mid-crossing, as a “wolf pack” of German U-boats lies in wait, what we mostly hear from Krause are the orders he barks: “hard right rudder two-zero-seven,” that kind of thing. If you don’t catch them the first time, don’t worry — almost everything he says for most of the movie is immediately repeated by an underling, not that these lines are much more comprehensible the second time around.
“Greyhound” sinks into the process of a man doing his best in an impossible situation, surrounded by enemy submarines in the North Atlantic. There are little moments that flesh out the character between the lines of all those barks of “left standard rudder” and “standard sweep to starboard,” many of them related to his religion: When an elated sailor says “50 less Krauts!” after the Keeling sinks its first U-boat, a weary Krause says, “Yes, 50 souls.”
Hanks is also a modest actor, one who’d rather appear almost stoic most of the time; when Krause shouts, “I will ram that U-boat if I have to!” it comes as something of a shock.
Mostly, we know who the captain is because Tom Hanks is playing him, and that means he’s imbued with decency and honor. Of the supporting characters, Stephen Graham has a face made for war movies as the second-in-command, and Rob Morgan speaks volumes with small glances as a Black man restricted to serving the captain’s food to him.
But this is Hanks’ movie, so Krause is the one who picks up binoculars and looks out across a restless, menacing sea with its dangers lurking underneath while Blake Neely’s score — low and doomy, but shot through with keening sounds like a distressed whale — plays up the drama as if it’s part of a more emotional war movie.
The camera moves from the tight, cramped quarters inside the ship to the wide-open spaces outside. At times it rises above a battle, and in one picturesque moment it keeps going through the clouds until we see the aurora above; shots like that seem made for widescreen, though at times you wonder if the visual effects might not be well-served by the smaller format.
The crossing occupies almost all of the 90-minute film, and it’s particularly effective when the battle turns into a nighttime nightmare: an oil tanker exploding on the surface, survivors in the water, U-boats lurking below. But it’s never as immersive or as harrowing as, say, “The Outpost,” because this is a different kind of movie — an old-fashioned one, in a way, though effective if you’re in the mood for a straightforward, tense journey-through-hostile-territory yarn.