Dir. Aaron Schneider; Tom Hanks
[1 out of 4 stars]
The cinematic history of naval thrillers is extensive, reaching all the way back to early Hollywood when swashbucklers like Rudolph Valentino and Errol Flynn were swinging from mast to mast with rapiers in their belts and daggers between their teeth. There is obvious appeal to the setting: you have the geographic constraint of putting a group of people in a confined space and pitting them against the ocean, other sailors, and the existential dread of never reaching dry land again. It’s the same set-up that makes submarine stories like The Hunt for Red October (1990) or space stories such as High Life (2018) work so splendidly. Those may be under the water or above the Earth, but the same principles that motivate naval stories in the vein of The Sea Hawk (1940) or Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) apply. All you need are ships, communal solitude, and constant danger. It is this formula that Greyhound (2020) wants to use to its advantage, but in the end only manages to perfunctorily float on until it crumbles under the weight of its own failings.
Adapted by Tom Hanks from C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd, the film follows Captain Krause (Hanks, once again) and the crew of the destroyer USS Keeling, call sign Greyhound, as they escort an armada of supplies across the ocean during the Battle of the Atlantic in the heat of World War II. Their services are necessary because there is a stretch of the journey when it is too far out for the combined Allied Air Forces to protect the supply ships from German U-Boat attacks. During this stretch, called “the Black Pit,” Greyhound and three other Allied destroyers, call signs Dicky, Harry, and Eagle, are tasked with fending off any U-Boats or other dangers from the high seas. Apart from a single scene early on where Krause’s assumed romantic interest (their relationship is never actually clarified, more on that later) Evelyn (Elisabeth Shue) gives him a gift before he departs on the Greyhound, the entirety of the film’s plot unfolds as Krause and his crew defend the merchant ships they are escorting.
Roughly 45 minutes into the 91-minute film, I turned to my brother and remarked that it felt like we were “watching a game of Battleship.” The thought came to me because the sum total of what we had watched so far was the Greyhound splashing around the convoy trying to guess where the U-Boats were and sink them before they could attack. Hanks never shouts “I guess B-6!” but the variations on checking the sonar, guessing position, coming around to the starboard side, and dropping depth charges took on the repetitive nature of the guesswork one employs when playing Battleship. On one hand, this is effective in a baseline way. Cutting out almost all of the human drama that normally populates these movies and instead going all in on the naval action means that most of Greyhound plays out in the manner of a non-stop action sequence. It generates tension simply because you cannot escape the string of attacks and responses, distress signals from the convoy, and Krause’s continued attempts to keep his boats afloat. But it never moves on from that, and so a promising opening dose of tension decays into a status of discomfiting monotony. In that way it once again felt like a game of Battleship, one that had gone on far too long so you just wish somebody would sink your last ship and be done with it.
Why is that feeling the sum total of what Greyhound achieved for me? I would connect it most distinctly to the directorial work of Aaron Schneider, and Hank’s screenplay, both of which seem to aim for stately and classical, and instead settle on stuffy and undercooked, as if they were hoping to serve a steak dinner and accidentally bought frozen meatballs. But I digress. Schneider’s directorial style can best be summed up as overly literal. The aforementioned naval, submarine, and space thrillers all employ a sense of claustrophobic cinematography to convey confinement; close ups, limited camera movement, and low light populate these frames. Schneider no doubt recognizes this, and so his approach to Greyhound is to mimic these same attempts. Yet, what he seems not to understand is that such an approach must cohere into a tonal language of cinema. The choices must feel measured and considered, and his choices do not come close to that. Instead, the interchangeable scenes of Krause giving orders on the bridge or running out to look over the side at approaching torpedoes all look the same. The colors are muted but not in the David Fincher approach of moodiness, but rather simply that everything is drab and uninteresting. This may very well have been how a World War II boat looked, but paired with the fact that Scheider almost never moves his camera and relies on the same small group of close-ups and medium-shots of Krause and the crew, it is just utterly uninvolving filmmaking. It is boring, and if it wasn’t for the constant sounds of exploding torpedoes and grating metal, I very well may have been put to sleep by his approach.
The sad fact is, Hanks does Schneider no favors with his screenplay. The man is a national treasure, apart from Forrest Gump (1994) which is an affront to both filmmaking and human decency, but he is not infallible. He keeps Krause as the central character, the baseline of the novel, but does little to make him more than a cliché-ridden ‘stiff-upper-lip’ sort of military commander. He refuses to eat, sleep, or sit down as long as they are in “the Black Pit,” and so we are treated to his bloodied feet and tired eyes, which Hanks seems to think are enough defining characteristics to make up the totality of the man. In all fairness, he does add auxiliary figures to humanize Krause, but those attempts are deeply problematic and simply should not exist in a film in 2020. The first is the aforementioned Evelyn, who is nothing more than window-dressing. Shue is lovely and effective in her one scene, but she represents the exhausting ‘wife-behind-the-man’ trope that sees female characters relegated to no more than plot points used to develop male characters. Hanks seems to hope that if Krause has someone he loves on land, we will care more about his chances at survival. In a basic sense it is true, but it represents the bare minimum and should be chastised for making the single female character have absolutely nothing to do besides sit on a bench in a nice coat and make eyes at our Great Man ™.
In addition, while on the boat, there is Black kitchen-mate named Cleveland (Rob Morgan) who constantly tries to get Krause to eat. Just as Hanks does with Evelyn, his screenplay positions Cleveland as a figure to flesh out Krause as opposed to existing in any defined way on his own. What makes this relationship all the more repellent is how it echoes, whether intentionally or not, the master-servant tropes at play throughout the history of American cinema. Earlier this year, I wrote about Gone with the Wind (1939) and how Hattie McDaniel’s performance is the embodiment of the “Mammy” stereotype, an unthreatening Black woman existent in film only to serve white femininity. Blackness in this movie is only shown to be subservient to whiteness. Again, this is historically accurate to how Black men serving would have been relegated to kitchen duties, but Hanks’ screenplay uses Cleveland only to putter around and try to get this Great Man ™ to eat and take a load off. This goes even further when he is killed in an attack and his funeral is used to melodramatically focus on the pain that Krause feels. Cleveland’s sole purpose in this movie is to die so that Krause can feel something strong enough for us to see. That is simply unacceptable.
I wanted to like Greyhound. A period piece of naval suspense with Hanks at the helm? What could go wrong? It turns out, quite a bit, for the finished product is a frightfully underdeveloped piece of storytelling that ventures beyond disinterest into the realm of actively lowering the standards of Hollywood filmmaking in this day and age. This film is a tepid excuse for cinema, and furthers deeply problematic tropes and norms within its negligent frames.