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Schultz reviews: 'Greyhound'

Schultz reviews: 'Greyhound'

Carl Schultz

 

“Greyhound”   Distributed by Sony Pictures and Apple TV+, 91 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released July 10, 2020:

Over twenty years after actor Tom Hanks helped to redefine Hollywood war movies with the unusually graphic opening scenes of 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan,” the actor returns to the subject of World War II in “Greyhound,” the new picture from Sony Pictures currently streaming on Apple TV+. 

 

Unlike other films depicting various aspects of the most recent global war, “Greyhound” emphasizes the gravity of command rather than spectacle, and individual responsibility rather than bloodshed.

“Greyhound” focuses on a time on global history when the entire free world looked to the United States for both its leadership and its seemingly inexhaustible supply of natural resources--the petroleum, food, machinery, armaments, and raw manpower needed to resist the onset of a fascist empire during the early 1940s. 

 

While officially, carefully, and pointedly neutral in the European conflict, the United States in March of 1941 instituted President Roosevelt’s Lend Lease program--literally an act to promote the defense of the US by reinforcing Great Britain, which by then was the last great obstacle between Nazi Germany and the United States.

Even after December 07, 1941, when the United States became a full, participating partner in the global alliance against the tyranny of the Axis nations, the supply network to Great  Britain continued as a means of fortifying free Europe while the US resisted the advance of the Japanese war machine to the west and rebuilt the Pacific Fleet decimated at Pearl Harbor. 

 

The frequently overlooked mission to convoy supplies and materiel to Great Britain was called the Battle of the Atlantic. And during the early years of World War II, the Battle of the Atlantic was mostly being won by Nazi Germany, and its fleet of deadly U-boat attack submarines.

Set in February 1942 during the opening days of the United States’ entry into the global conflict, in “Greyhound” an untried American skipper in his first seagoing command is assigned a daunting task--overall control of an escort force protecting a convoy of some sixty merchant vessels against enemy attack across “the Black Pit”--the mid-North Atlantic gap between the United States and Great Britain where anti-submarine aircraft cannot reach.  Crossing the Black Pit required some 52 or so hours without protection from the air--in naval terminology, thirteen 4-hour watches.

With a screenplay adapted by Tom Hanks himself from C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel “The Good Shepherd” and directed by Aaron Schneider,  “Greyhound” does an impressive job of condensing Forester’s 310-page novel to the 80-or-so-minute format of the picture (the 91-minute movie contains some ten minutes of credits at the end, effectively shortening the running time of the narrative).  A surprisingly effective exercise in literature, most of the dialogue and virtually all of the narrative is taken from the book--screenwriter Hanks essentially pruned and edited and shaped for the screen what was already present in the novel.

Despite being two decades long in the tooth for the role (in the novel, the character is 42), Hanks plays Commander George Krause is a man who keenly feels the mortal authority of his command.  As suggested by the title of the novel, the responsibilities of a naval captain, especially during wartime, are almost godlike in breadth and scope...multiplied many times for the commander of a convoy containing scores of warships and merchant vessels of international origins.  While Krause is a career naval officer with years of seniority, much of his career has been spent in land-bound assignments.  Many of his subordinates, while junior in rank, have already been fighting the war for over two years.   

Hanks’ Krause in his first battleship command bears his responsibility uneasily, with conscience and a sense of morality fairly unique among men in his position.  Commander Krause prays on his knees, eschews profanity and personal comfort, cares enough for his sailors to inquire after the welfare of the lowliest crewman, shares his meals with his command staff, and cherishes the lives of his men--and even those of the enemy--enough to abhor every life lost.  After Krauss’ battleship sinks its first German U-boat, a crew member gloats, “That’s fifty less Krauts.”  And Hanks as Krause quietly responds, “Yes--fifty less souls.”

A novice at command, with more-experienced  naval warriors under his guidance and protection, Hanks as Krause is able to betray with a glance or a facial expression the troubling sense of inferiority felt by the character he plays:  When the convoy loses a merchant vessel to a U-boat attack, Krause feels the eyes of his crew studying his reaction, and seeing  his feeling of failure.  Hanks’ Krause knows how to command a battleship--only the shooting is new...and the dying.

While the movie’s necessarily sparse dialogue can’t capture the piquant elegance of Forester’s descriptive prose, which elevates the experience of one insignificant US naval commander to a level equal to the exploits of Nelson at Trafalgar, “Greyhound” does depict the dreadful nobility of a military commander during wartime, expressed in the novel with an eloquence reminiscent of Homeric mythology.  The scion of a literary family, C.S. Forester was also the author of the seafaring “Horatio Hornblower” series of novels...and “The African Queen.”  

Filmmaker Aaron Schneider in just his second feature as director guides “Greyhound” (the picture’s title refers to the code name of the task force) with a mostly stolid and workmanlike but unimaginative hand.  As a former cinematographer, the sophomore filmmaker naturally has an eye for photography, sometimes even highlighting the terrible beauty of naval warfare.  But Schneider also displays a troublesome habit of allowing the screen to fade to black between scenes.  It’s an effective means of punctuating a scene...but also mistakenly signals to the viewer an upcoming commercial message from a TV sponsor.

Still, there are a number of effectual panoramic shots which are especially effective in suggesting the global scope of the war, including one moment when Schneider allows his camera to drift upward from the battle, higher and higher past the clouds, to the Aurora Borealis glowing in the cold North Atlantic sky.  The view suggests both the vastness of the ocean dwarfing the sweep of the battle...and the ultimate futility and relative insignificance of deadly international conflict in the infinity of the cosmos.  As Herman Wouk wrote in his epic “The Winds of War,” “Either war is finished...or we are.”

“Greyhound” contains strong supporting performances by British actor Stephan Graham as Krause’s executive officer Lieutenant Charlie Cole and Rob Morgan as the captain’s steward, Mess Attendant 2nd Class George Cleveland.  An amusing subplot features Cleveland delivering hot meals to Captain Krause, which are either ignored entirely or shared among his command staff.  In a thankless role as Krause’s love interest Evelyn Frechette, Elisabeth Shue appears briefly in the film’s opening minutes, but serves only as a cipher, a means of describing Krause’s personality.  Her character does not appear in the novel.

But “Greyhound” is Tom Hanks’ show all the way.  Now in his fourth decade of global movie stardom, Hanks the actor is in a category by himself--two Academy Awards prove that, and many of us have known it from the days of the TV sitcom “Bosom Buddies” and early 1980s comedies like “Bachelor Party,” “Volunteers,” and “Splash.”  Now by carefully crafting together history and literature, in “Greyhound” Hanks the screenwriter also shows some enormous promise.  Check it out. 

Filmed on an economical budget of just over $50 million, “Greyhound” is receiving favorable reviews, including an approval rating of 79% from 195 critics at Rotten Tomatoes and a weighted average of 64% from Metacritic.  Rotten Tomatoes notes that the characters “aren’t as robust as its action sequences, but this fast-paced World War II thriller benefits from its efficiently economical approach.”  Writing for Variety, Owen Gleiberman observes that the picture is “less a drama than a tense and sturdy diary of the logistics of battle; (the picture) often feels like a submarine thriller--tense, tight, boxed-in.”

With dramatic scenes filmed both aboard the USS Kidd in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and seagoing scenes aboard the Canadian frigate HMCS Montreal,  “Greyhound” was originally scheduled for a wide theatrical release by Sony Pictures on June 12, but was delayed indefinitely by the Covid-19 pandemic. The film’s distribution rights were sold by Sony Pictures to the fledgling Apple TV+, which released the film digitally on July 10.  Apple reports “Greyhound” enjoyed the largest debut weekend of any film in the network’s history, with Deadline Hollywood reporting ratings “commensurate with a summer theatrical box office hit.”

“Greyhound” is rated PG-13 for war-related action and violence, and for brief strong language.

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