New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: TOM HANKS COMMANDS A TENSE AND TAUT THRILLER IN “GREYHOUND”

Dramas with a war-time backdrop and Tom Hanks continue to be a crackerjack combination with GREYHOUND, the new WWII thriller that premieres on Apple TV + this weekend. Whether he’s starring in the likes of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or BRIDGE OF SPIES or producing miniseries like BAND OF BROTHERS, Hanks has an unerring eye for strong material about America’s mid-20th Century war efforts. Only this time, he’s not only starring in and producing the VOD feature, he’s its writer as well. It’s one hell of an accomplishment.

Adapting C.S. Forester’s fictional war novel The Good Shepherd, Hanks plays Commander Ernest Krause, an earnest and religious man who still is thrilled each time he sees his radiant girlfriend Evelyn (Elisabeth Shue). He proposes they get married in the film’s opening moments, a few days before he begins his first command at sea. She suggests they wait so he may concentrate on his big new job, and indeed, his life is about to get a whole lot more thrilling soon.

So does the film, as from the moment we board the USS Keeling with Krause, the story becomes a tense and taut thriller that never lets us go. Krause is charged with leading a multi-national escort group ensuring the safe passage of a merchant ship convoy from New York, New York to Liverpool, England. The 37 ships he’s in charge of are loaded with Allied supplies and soldiers to help out the war effort against Hitler in Europe. He’s barely on the water when both treacherous waves and errant German U-boats start to impede their passage.

Forester’s novel is told from the third person POV by Krause, and though there is no onscreen narration echoing that device here on film, Hanks ensures that we feel the viewpoint of the commander throughout. He’s onscreen the entire running time of 91 minutes, and every word Krause utters and every move he makes is captured in close-up. Hanks is an actor who can do more with such opportunities than most others, brilliantly showing his character’s hesitation or the cogs turning in the brain as he thinks. It’s a shrewd performance, one that conveys volumes, mostly through such intimate moments. 

Krause has a lot to think about at sea as it’s not just the waves and Axis that are sticking in his craw, but he’s got the judging eyeballs of dozens of navy men barely out of their teens looking at him too. Is he making the right decisions? Will his orders lead to catastrophe, casualties, or perhaps even the sinking of the Greyhound? This is a war film that, despite a lot of action sequences, derives most of its tension from the faces of its players. Thus, it plays perfectly on one’s home screen. 

Those young faces staring at Krause hoping for the best are mostly filled with unfamiliar actors and the script gives us little character development of any of them.  That’s intentional as both Hanks and his director Aaron Schneider strive to keep the supporting cast enigmatic to keep them unknown to Krause and us. In addition to all he’s processing during the ship’s skirmishes, the reliability of his crew is also part of the drama for this newbie captain. Only Stephen Graham as Charlie Cole, Krause’s second-in-command, is a trusted entity from previous years at sea. Cole makes for a terrific sounding board for Krause’s decisions and Graham nicely underplays the symbolic character.

Director Schneider and his crew do a sharp job of keeping the action moving and believable throughout, and that’s quite a feat given that most of the exteriors are visual effect creations. Cinematographer Shelly Johnson, editors Mark Czyzewski and Sidney Wolinsky, and the CGI department, make most of the visuals appear entirely convincing, all the more impressive as the entire shooting budget for this film was a skosh over 50 million.

Hanks’ dialogue is laden with orders being barked by Krause and then repeated by his crew (“Come left to 091!” “Aye, aye, sir, coming left to 091!”). There are no treacly moments where the commander questions whether he’s fit for the job or extensive banter with his crew about just what the Germans are up to during their cat and mouse games. The only purple prose in the script’s dialogue comes from the taunting German command infiltrating the radio communications to intimidate Krause and his crew, and it’s meant to be viciously over-the-top.

All in all, GREYHOUND is a gripping, breathless, and stirring thriller, one whose only moments of levity come from Krause’s inability to sit and eat any of the meals that the mess crew has prepared for him. Kudos to Apple for producing such a smart and adult-themed period piece, and for releasing it during the pandemic too. Hollywood seems to have failed by and large to realize that with all of the world quarantined at home, they have a captive audience on their hands. Hopefully, this worthy film will find an audience and provide some entertainment while we all wait for the second wave of COVID-19.

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