At some point in his long and beloved career, Tom Hanks began to transition from America’s sweetheart to America’s serenity. He steeled a troop of soldiers on a veritable suicide mission in “Saving Private Ryan,” remained stoic as Somali pirates hijacked his container ship in “Captain Phillips,” and landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson without losing a single one of the 155 souls on board in “Sully.” It’s a screen image that has naturally spilled over into real life, as we saw earlier this year when Hanks’ became one of the first major celebrities diagnosed with COVID-19; his fame helped people recognize the reality of the virus, and his composure helped people steel themselves for its imminent arrival on our shores.
At the same time, much of Hanks’ enduring relevance can be attributed to the eagerness with which he’s complicated, subverted, parodied, and generally played with that persona. He can’t do anything about being an icon, but — like most of Hollywood’s brightest stars — it seems that he’d rather be remembered as a performer than figurehead.
So when Hanks identified C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel “The Good Shepherd” as prime source material for his next acting vehicle, it’s safe to assume that he was drawn to the role of Ernest Krause because the rattled and insecure WWII Navy Commander would allow him to interrogate the archetype he’s embodied over the second half of his career. What could be better than a submarine thriller to help someone explore their own depths? For the first time since “Larry Crowne,” Hanks even took it upon himself to write the screenplay, which makes it all the more baffling that “Greyhound” is as shallow as a swimming pool.
A terse and streamlined dad movie that’s shorter than a Sunday afternoon nap and just as exciting, “Greyhound” bobs across the screen like a nuanced character study that’s been entombed in a 2,000-ton iron casket and set adrift over the Atlantic. The film offers a handful of brief hints at the tortured hero who Forester invented for his book — an ambitious but self-doubting career sailor who feared that he was only promoted because of the war, and worried that he might be unfit to lead an armada of young men who all had more combat experience than he did — but the whole thing is far too preoccupied with staying afloat to profile the guy at the helm in any meaningful way. After 80 tense but monotonous minutes of watching Hanks play a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse with a fleet of German subs, it’s hard to say if Commander Krause has steered his Mahan-class Destroyer through a dark night of the soul, or if he’s simply managed to stomach a bad case of seasickness.
Directed by Aaron Schneider (whose return to the big screen ends the 11-year drought that followed 2009’s “Get Low”), “Greyhound” plunges us into the Battle of the Atlantic as Krause tries to lead a supply convoy through the “Black Pit” during the early days of America’s involvement in the War. It’s his first command — though it’s unclear if his officers can smell that on him — and Krause’s only reward for making his way through an invisible maze of U-boats will be a front-row seat at the European theatre. Best-case scenario: He makes it to England in one piece, where he’ll be stranded more than 6,000 miles away from the woman he loves (Elisabeth Shue, the only woman who appears on screen, buoying a pair of ultra-disposable bookend scenes that externalize Krause’s motivation and sink the movie from the start). Worst-case: The Nazis blow him up before he reaches British shores.
The vast majority of “Greyhound” is anchored to the USS Keeling (played by the USS Kidd in what quickly becomes the film’s most layered performance). The ship’s cramped interiors house a nervous crew of brave and only slightly interchangeable sailors, all of whom are at the mercy of Krause’s decisions. None of these kids are afforded real arcs of their own, but “Love” star Karl Glusman makes an impression as a capable sonar operator, and Stephen Graham tastefully relishes the chance to go full Brooklyn in the role of Krause’s right-hand man. These broad-stroke characterizations are easy enough to swallow in the midst of a death-defying mission that requires the absolute focus of everyone aboard the Keeling, from the gunners who scramble across the decks to the humble Black steward (Rob Morgan acing a squidgy part) who keeps the sandwiches coming to a hungry crew; his name is Cleveland, a detail that Krause forgets in one of the few moments that meaningfully humanizes them both.
Alas, these secondary characters are stuck in a rudderless film that wants to refract everything through their commander, but can’t find a way to get into his head. Schneider has no trouble selling us on the vulnerability of Krause’s fleet, as U-boats surface through through the waters like shark fins, and the German commanders taunt our heroes over the radio like they’re hunting them for sport; that sitting duck sensation of being watched results in a movie that has less in common with “Midway” than it does something like “The Grey.”
The enemy submarines and ocean vistas are brought to life by a more advanced version of the same technology responsible for “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” but the deathly colorlessness of the cold Atlantic seas helps disguise the computer-generated environment, even when the action gets intense enough to puncture a hole right through the hull of that illusion. If only the film had been less hesitant to mess around with its digital magic. When a torpedo careens right off the side of the Keeling at one point, the action beat stands out from the shapeless cacophony of screams and explosions that “Greyhound” substitutes in lieu of coherent naval warfare.
It’s the exception to the rule in a waterlogged film that fails to refract any of this empty spectacle through the one person whose experience might have made it feel seaworthy. Hanks isn’t bad, per se, but “Greyhound” has more trouble finding Commander Krause beneath his flop sweat than Commander Krause does the submarines that are lurking beneath his ship. He’s green and religious and trying to sail his way through modern history’s soggiest trial by fire, but few of these details crest into view during a movie that struggles to see what’s under the surface.
“Greyhound” will be available to stream on Apple TV+ starting on Friday, July 10.