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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson: "Greyhound" written by and starring Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks
Harlan Jacobson

Greyhound is a WWII tale of American heroics in the North Atlantic , written by and starring Tom Hanks, who’s made a great career out of putting forward humble men who just want to get the job done and go home, in this case set on a naval Destroyer.

The mission given to Tom Hanks as US Naval Commander Ernie Krause in Greyhound is to safely escort a 37-ship convoy of troops and supplies across the North Atlantic in early 1942 and navigate for five days, outside of American airpower, around -- or over -- a German school of U-Boats calling itself the Wolfpack.

It’s a bit reminiscent of a 1958 film, The Enemy Below, featuring a naval chess match between Robert Mitchum up top commanding a US Destroyer and German actor Kurt Jurgens below on the U-boat. This engagement with the enemy in Greyhound is an extravaganza of rolling, steel gray seas and skies, filmed by DP Shelly Johnson, on the Canadian Navy Ship Montreal in the North Atlantic in January 2018. And, of course, it is about American can-do intelligence, the courage to act on it, and in Hanks’ case, since he wrote the script from CS Forester’s 1955 novel, The Good Shepherd, to act as a man of faith.

After Capt. Krause outwits and takes out his first U-boat, with a “hard-right rudder!” command — hardly anyone in this man’s navy says Starboard or Port -- the first mate exults “That’s 75 less Krauts!” Hanks’ Krause quietly corrects him with “souls.”  

The project in Greyhound is pointedly to draw a picture of true leadership, marked by humility, in short supply these days. Elizabeth Shue as the blonde the good Captain leaves ashore is a complete after thought; the film is yet another homage to the Greatest Generation. When the Greyhound trades truly thrilling shots with the Wolfpack U-boats — thank you, 500 hundred-plus FX and CGI artists -- it actually blew a stack of DVDs off my subwoofer, thank you Sound Dept and score by Blake Neely. With every screaming fusillade, you are reminded that most likely your entire generation wouldn’t have lasted 90 seconds of this 91-minute film, wetting your pants when the Wolfpack Commander breaks into the Greyhound intercom system to taunt Capt Krause on his maiden crossing, ”You vill all die today.” Director Aaron Schneider’s best hand is played in tenser ensembles, like watching the crew go full old-school and use radar and protractors on a backlit table top to map out engagement.

The film packages that deep American male wish to quietly exit the theater of battle – whatever it may be for you — only to emerge to a surprise salute by the people in your protection. It’s still an active workplace yearning: witness the ovation the crew of the navy battleship Theodore Roosevelt gave Capt Brett Crozier last April, relieved of his command in a letter warning his superiors of Covid 19’s potential to decimate the ship.

Greyhound’s interiors were filmed in Baton Rouge on a $50 million budget. Sony scuttled its summer release after Covid19 took down theaters and sold it to Apple TV. While there was a real convoy, the historical facts are all jumbled together in this story -- you don’t go to the movies to learn certified history -- but the film touches a nerve. The crew are all white men, as they were in the segregated navy of WWII. It’s like Tara onboard the Greyhound, minus Scarlett O’Hara but with Hanks as Ashley Wilkes in command. The main Black character is Rob Morgan’s whitecoat waiter, Cleveland, who regularly surfaces on the bridge bearing a tray of cuisine worthy of the first-class seats on The 20th Century Limited, or the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel. Capt. Krause is too busy to eat, of course, but the script makes a point of noticing the righteous white captain feeling the soul of his soul-nurturing Black servant.

It isn’t just that the virus changed the film’s release pattern, it’s that the politics of Black Lives Matter outstripped Hank’s intent to show what a real leader looks like – in intended contrast to the daily drumbeat of cable news -- by glancing off the matter of race the way one German torpedo here glances off the Greyhound’s hull and heads back out to sea.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.