War movies tend to fall into two camps. There are the ones like 1917, Dunkirk, or Saving Private Ryan that focus on the mental and emotional impact of battle on those fighting it, and there are ones more concerned with the technical and strategic aspects of the events depicted, like Tora! Tora! Tora! Once in a great while, we’ll see something like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which straddles the line between character investment and military history deep dive.
The Tom Hanks-penned WWII naval drama Greyhound starts off in the second camp, but somehow miraculously manages to approach something close to Master and Commander’s “both and” style by the end. Greyhound never quite reaches that same level of emotional connection, but by the time its climactic final battle sequence rolls around, you may be surprised by how committed you’ve become to the story.
Based on C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shepherd, Greyhound is told from the perspective of an honest but inexperienced naval captain, Krause (Hanks), who has to protect a convoy of Allied supply ships from German U-Boats during the Battle of the Atlantic. This is Krause’s first wartime mission, and the film addresses the impossible decisions he has to make in the heat of battle as much as it does the technical aspects of fighting at sea.
Unless you’re a military obsessive (or perhaps in the Navy yourself), the first third of Greyhound feels like watching a foreign film with the subtitles turned off. You can tell there are ships, and that some of them are Good Ships and some of them are Bad Ships. Which ships are which, as well as where they are and what the Greyhound is trying to accomplish, all get lost in a hail of call signs and jargon.
A funny thing happens after Hanks and his crew sink their first U-Boat, however. The further in the movie goes, the more things start to make sense, and the more you start to care about the mission. By the end, I found myself gasping at information conveyed over the ship’s radio that, an hour beforehand, would have baffled me.
This is due to Hanks’ economical screenwriting, alongside Aaron Schneider’s lean direction. What the film lacks in character beats it makes up for in momentum. The information set up in the first act may take a moment (or several) to register, but when that exposition pays off later, and you suddenly understand its significance, you feel all the smarter for it. You could think of Greyhound like Mad Max: Fury Road for Dads – we’re being immersed in an unfamiliar world and asked to just go with what we’re given.
The difference between Fury Road and Greyhound is that George Miller parsed out resonant character information and philosophy alongside his world-building (something Peter Weir also managed with Master and Commander). Greyhound doesn’t do much with any character outside of Hanks’ Krause, but there are small moments throughout that subtly suggest their core values. We see Krause pray before meals, and place high importance on helping others. His interactions with his second-in-command, Charlie Cole (Stephen Graham) show two professionals with a lot of respect for each other. The ship’s head chef, Cleveland (Rob Morgan), has a strong sense of duty, evidenced in his insistence on serving Krause good, regular meals, even in the tense moments leading up to a battle. It’s all just barely enough to make the characters compelling.
For WWII buffs, Greyhound is likely an all-killer-no-filler experience. For anyone not quite on that level, it’s a little more work to get excited. However, from a nuts-and-bolts perspective, it’s still a good example of economical, immersive action storytelling. It never dumbs anything down, and expects the audience to keep up with what’s happening. Patient viewers will get there, and may just find they’ve actually learned something in the process.
“Greyhound” is now streaming on Apple TV+.