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Tom Hanks has often found that the military or quasi-military uniform of a much-loved authority figure rather suits him: that sensitive, faintly rheumy gaze is often to be seen under a peaked cap or battered helmet. He was the container-ship captain in Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips, the heroic airline pilot in Clint Eastwood’s Sully, the teacher-turned-soldier in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Now he is the US naval commander Ernest Krause in this robustly old-fashioned second world war adventure, in which Hanks also makes his screenwriting debut, adapting the 1955 novel, The Good Shepherd by CS Forester.
Hanks plays a captain during the Battle of the Atlantic who has finally been promoted. He has been given command of a destroyer with the call sign “Greyhound” and tasked with protecting vital supply convoys on their way from the US to Britain, through mountainous seas and surrounded by U-boats led by lethally cunning German sadists.
Having bade a rather formal farewell to his wife, Evie (a brief cameo for Elisabeth Shue), Ernest sets sail and quickly finds himself in terrifying danger. An early and flukey success against the enemy leads him to make miscalculations due to inexperience, and soon his convoy is attacked by a sinister wolf pack of vengeful U-boats, who start picking off ships, one by one, with terrifying precision. Their leader (voiced by Thomas Kretschmann) screeches Germany-calling-type taunts over the radio: “Ve hear the screams of your comrades as zey die! You vill die today!”
Hanks’s troubled captain is visibly tired and vulnerable, at one stage poignantly asking for his soft slippers to brought to him to soothe his aching feet. His subordinates, including Charlie Cole (Stephen Graham) have affection for their chief, but you can see a tiny flicker of dismay on their obedient faces. Has the old man got what it takes?
Easily the most startling moment comes with the captain making a mortifying mistake about the two galley stewards whose job it is serve him meals: Cleveland (Rob Morgan) and Pitts (Craig Tate) are the only black crew members. In his exhaustion and distraction, the captain calls one by the other’s name. This blunder is of course not presented as evidence of his callousness, still less of systemic racism, just the understandable lapse of a thoroughly decent guy under unimaginable pressure. Hanks is the only actor (and screenwriter) in Hollywood who could possibly have got away with this, although I can’t see him or anyone else risking such a line right now.
Greyhound is a very traditional and indeed traditionalist movie, with Hanks beginning and ending his first day in battle kneeling in prayer. Yet the action itself sticks largely and somehow expressionistically to the tense, claustrophobic world of the bridge with the captain barking all manner of opaque naval jargon. In some ways it resembles a kind of ocean-going stage play: the other, distant ships and the vast heaving grey sea are rendered digitally. But it’s effective and watchable, with some genuinely tense moments as Hanks has to make split-second decisions about two Nazi torpedoes heading his way from different directions, and then desperately bellow his orders over the wind and rain. He is very much the sort of mythical figure that Walter Mitty might imagine himself being.
I’m also a sucker for some old-school cat-and-mouse strategy between allied ships and German U-boats and this doesn’t disappoint. There are moments with Hanks looking urgently into the distance through his captain’s binoculars, which reminded me of Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea.
Death is the most difficult thing to represent in a war movie, or any movie. Three sailors are killed in battle, and Hanks and director Aaron Schneider contrive a burial-at-sea sequence halfway through, which is notable for one tiny touch of what might be called mythic insubordination. Just as a shrouded body is about to be solemnly dropped from its flag-wrapping over the side into the sea, it gets tangled. We get an infinitesimal cutaway to Hanks’s alarmed face: is this sad moment going to turn into farce? But in the next moment, the problem is righted and the ceremony goes ahead.
Another sort of movie might have put far more emphasis on things like this. As well as death and tragedy, war is full of absurdity, indignity, chaos, all sorts of bizarre and embarrassing things that don’t get mentioned in the official record. Greyhound is content with its keynote of sombre reverence.
• Greyhound is available on Apple TV from 10 July.
• This article was amended on 12 July 2020 to correct the spelling of Elisabeth Shue.
Source: The Guardian
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