A few months ago I watched perhaps the strangest project in Walt Disney’s long, illustrious history, the 1943 animated film Victory Through Air Power. It’s a World War II propaganda piece illustrating, through cartoons, Alex P. de Seversky’s theory on how to beat Japan and Nazi Germany by using specific military techniques via airplanes. Disney felt the film was so crucial to the war effort (as it turns out, it kinda was) that he even rushed the release, disregarding his policy against more economic animation techniques. I learned a lot about the United States’ obstacles during the war and why airplanes were vital in taking down the Axis powers.
However, planes were smaller and simpler back then and could only carry enough fuel to take them so far across the ocean, a restriction that forced merchant ships to sail unprotected for large stretches of open water. German U-boats knew about this weakness and came in hoards to destroy the US and British convoys. This is where escort ships like the fictional Greyhound come into play, which specialized in fending off the German submarines.
I’m glad I watched that Disney cartoon. Otherwise, I might have been even more lost watching the new film Greyhound. Tom Hanks plays Ernest Krause, commander of the titular ship making its way across the Atlantic Ocean to Britain, leading a pack of dozens of freighters carrying troops and supplies. They’re sailing for nearly three days without air coverage and are extremely vulnerable to attacks. Ernest stays awake for the duration of the trial.
Manning the only battle ship in the fleet, he and his crew are being haunted by a particular Nazi submarine fleet, which is picking off his companion vessels one by one, using strategies to either distract or tire out the Greyhound, as well as slowly deplete the ship of all of its resources.
Greyhound, based on C. S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd, is a very sturdy look at naval combat, filled with quick banter and a deluge of numbers and codes the audience doesn’t and won’t understand. We’re never eased into the “action,” but rather thrown in and expected to follow everything that’s happening. Just like in the heat of battle, you don’t have time to think about the information being dumped on you – you just got with it. On the couch in my house, I never feel quite the same pressure to grasp what’s happening on my TV. Details, especially early on, get confusing, but with about 30 minutes left, things begin to level out a bit.
Tom Hanks, who also wrote the screenplay, is a necessary presence necessary to help carry us through this otherwise dry movie, conveying more emotion with his eyes than most actors ever can. The dialogue, which is unexpectedly deep when not riddled with naval jargon, has a certain incisiveness, yet when spoken by Hanks we know they’re true because of his expressions. This isn’t overwriting but exceptional acting.
Action sequences are decent, but exterior shots of the ship moving are often suffocating, presumably to show off some impressive special effects, and we tend to get flooded with visual cacophony. Director Aaron Schneider (Get Low) doesn’t really try to construct our spatial awareness and mapping out the scenarios in our head becomes difficult and tiresome.
At 90-minutes, Greyhound might be the shortest war movie ever, and packs it in tight for the sake of both heightening the stress and remaining economic with its story. Details are confusing, yet we’re never able to stop to take them all in either. We also don’t spend much time learning about other characters, besides Ernest.
Fortunately, a lot of the picture’s flaws are reconciled as we approach the finish line. We learn more about Ernest as a person in the limited time we have, and the study of his character is actually fairly impressive given the film’s brevity. We’re also gifted with a short and poignant scene in the beginning where Ernest meets his girlfriend Evelyn, played by Elisabeth Shue, just before he’s set to leave for sea.
Ultimately, this is a movie about duty and the sacrifices some people make to protect. Sacrifices made because of duty, which is tested here constantly. Ernest, a man of faith, recognizes how the little sacrifices, which are admittedly still difficult, pale in comparison to the bigger sacrifices others have made for our freedoms.
Greyhound plays like an old school war movie, free of topical social issues or commentary to parallel the current times. Rather, it celebrates those who risk and give their lives for the sake of a greater good, even if it tells the straightforward story in a mechanical, almost business-like fashion. That’s not to say there isn’t any emotion. An exceptional performance by Tom Hanks is the driving force behind nearly everything that works onscreen and when the plot finds time for sentiment it becomes very powerful, even finding time to honor veterans in a noble way. Unfortunately, much of the film is almost too authentic in its frank depiction.