Being that both begin with historical title cards and establishing shots of warships traveling full speed ahead upon enemy seas, Greyhound early on had me convinced that I was about to watch a World War II-set version of Master And Commander (that Napoleonic naval war epic that should’ve gotten as many sequels as the books by now).
Which is to say, a rollicking, meticulously recreated high seas swashbuckler filled with epic battles and impenetrable naval jargon shouted by grizzled men. Master And Commander is one of the greatest dad movies ever made. Who better to recapture its original appeal than America’s dad, Tom Hanks?
Hanks is both star, as Commander Ernest Krause, and screenwriter in Greyhound (adapting from CS Forester’s novel The Good Shepherd), which is more than a match for Master And Commander in terms of explosions and jargon, but desperately wanting in personality.
Whereas Master and Commander had Cap’n “Lucky Jack” (Russell Crowe) and his bookish ship’s surgeon, Maturin (Paul Bettany), Greyhound (directed by journeyman Aaron Schneider) gives us Krause and his second in command, Charlie, played by Stephen Graham — certainly a match for Crowe and Bettany on paper. The story is set in 1942 during the Battle of the Atlantic, beginning just as first-time captain Krause pilots his destroyer into “the black pit,” the 50-hour leg of the journey from the eastern seaboard of North America to the British isles when the convoy would be without air cover, with only their own warships to protect them from German U-Boats (this at a time when radar tech was still rudimentary and ships mostly communicated via deck-mounted spotlights flashing Morse code). In Greyhound, these U-boats have wolves painted on them and taunt the sailors with wolf howls through the radio, just to complete the whole “shepherd” metaphor.
Naturally, this premise had me hooked. As Herman Melville wrote in the opening paragraphs of Moby Dick, “Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea?”
So it is with dads and stories of naval battle. There eventually comes a time in every dad’s life when it’s a damp, drizzly November in their souls and they demand to see large men shout about port, starboard, fore, aft, headings, knots, fathoms; to cheer the destruction of their enemies and become solemn-faced at the deaths of their comrades. Greyhound has all this in spades — the bare minimum to qualify as a watchable, and reasonably enjoyable, naval war movie. It admirably conveys the claustrophobia and seasickness of sea travel and allows us to exult vicariously whenever a depth charge manages to blow a ship full of damned dirty Nazis into shark chum.
It’s just hard to care much about these characters beyond the fact that we’re ostensibly on the same team. The opening scene is fairly representative. We meet Krause after a brief flashback with a love interest (Elisabeth Shue) who defers his marriage proposal until after the war. He’s interrupted from his prayers and reverie by the necessity of meting out punishment to two sailors who had been fighting. They come before Krause and doff their caps (“Sailors, uncover”), revealing bruised eyes, busted lips, split eyebrows and whatnot. Krause tells them “I will not have fisticuffs on my ship!” like a vice principal and orders them to “restore the relationships you have damaged and fill me with peace.”
But before the soldiers (and we) can find out exactly what this restorative justice will look like, the captain is called back to the bridge. This is about all the characterization we ever get in Greyhound. Who are these two soldiers? Why were they fighting? Who cares? There’s Germans to kill and jargon to shout! Battle stations!
Tom Hanks and Stephen Graham (who on his journey from Tommy in Snatch to Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire and beyond has become one of our finest character actors) appear up to the challenge, but the script never gives them much to do besides shout orders and furrow brows. Tom Hanks furrows with the best of them but who the hell is this character? A guy who prays and leads and has a girl he loves somewhere far off camera? Are we to love him simply because he’s square?
In landing as such a far cry from Master And Commander, Greyhound proves that it’s not just the explosions and the jargon and the waves that make us (or fine, me) love stories of naval warfare. It’s the personalities. It’s the camaraderie. It’s the way ships force men from wildly disparate backgrounds, sardine-like, into shocking intimacy. They have to get along or else they will literally kill one another and everyone else onboard. (“At its heart, it’s really about family,” as goes the producer’s cliché).
Greyhound has a premise and a plot but it doesn’t really have characters. It has uniforms, certainly, but nothing like Master and Commander‘s “lesser of two weevils” scene*, or even that moment, common to almost every Naval battle movie (certainly Master and Commander and Crimson Tide) when the captain has to sacrifice a good man to save a ship.
All of this is to say that Greyhound is an exciting, non-stop battle scene from start to finish. Which might be enough to make us watch it, but is not enough to make us love it.
(*Does anyone who saw Master And Commander even once not remember this scene? It’s a cinematic earworm, as engraved in most Gen Y viewer’s minds as the lyrics to the Fresh Prince theme song.)