In most cases, war films are categorised into whatever era they are set in. For instance, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Paths of Glory (1957) are Great War films, The Great Escape (1963) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) are World War II films, and The Deer Hunter (1978) and Platoon (1986) are Vietnam War films. Interestingly, the categorisation can even narrow down to the type of combat, seeing as war has been fought over land, air and sea. Speaking of sea, Naval war films have provided some of the most compelling drama, nail-biting tension and thrilling action. Following in the footsteps of Das Boot (1981), The Hunt For Red October (1990) and Crimson Tide (1995), comes Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound (2020).
Set during the Battle of the Atlantic circa 1942, the story follows Commander Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks) after having received the job of commanding officer aboard the Naval warship ‘Greyhound’. Krause’s assignment is to defend a merchant ship convoy which is coming under attack from a Nazi U-Boat. Not only is Krause responsible for the lives of everyone aboard his own boat, but he is also feeling the weight of all the people on the merchant ship depending on him for protection. It’s a tense situation, as the enemy submarine can strike at any time. Additionally, Krause has no air support and must use his wits and untested skills as a commander to avert disaster.
What separates a Naval war film from others is that it requires high levels of tension. Sure, all kinds of battle scenes have their fair share of nail-biting moments, but there’s also plenty of shooting, stabbing and bombing which breaks the tension. When stuck on a boat or submarine, there’s no opportunity to depict the traditional horrors of war. The action is pretty much confined to the halls and decks of the boat. Navy men arguably had it worse than other soldiers, as they were living in fear of unseen (and unheard) enemy torpedoes. Greyhound successfully achieves this task, accurately depicting the constant stress of waiting for the enemy to sink you. Director Aaron Schneider hasn’t reinvented the wheel, but he expertly employs tension building tricks which were perfected in previous films.
With that in mind, sticking to the traditional rules of the genre allows Schneider to deliver some of the most spectacular action sequences we’ve seen from a war film in recent years. When the ocean threatens to bowl the boat over with its powerful waves, you find yourself clinging to your couch. When torpedoes are barrelling towards the boats, you hope with all your might they will steer out of the way. When depth charges are dropped, you cross your fingers so tightly for them to hit the enemy target. The high stakes of Naval combat are so easily translated that the audience will understand what’s going on even when the characters speak in their unique terminology. On that note, the Naval jargon feels so natural that you almost feel like you have mastered all of it by the time the credits roll.
One could argue the film’s whole point is to highlight the difficulties, details and issues these Navy men faced every day. There’s respectable effort put towards depicting the procedures and processes as honestly as possible. These soldiers worry about what they can hear, how much sound they are making and how many offensive weapons they have left after each battle. Even though the film is only 90 minutes long, Schneider and Hanks (who also wrote the script) ensure that every moment is packed with information. There’s not a single ounce of fat or unnecessary worldbuilding. There are moments when the action slows down, but it’s not long before we jump back into a tense situation. The slower moments could’ve used more room to breathe, but the breakneck pace is a huge asset for the most part.
Happily, the key performances elevate some of the lesser moments. No one in Hollywood is more dependable than Tom Hanks. He has been such a massive and well liked presence in the industry for so long, resulting in many people taking him for granted. Across his impressive career, he has built an infectious persona as a comforting and inspirational figure who you can proudly follow into the most terrifying situations. Hanks fulfils these traits as appropriately as ever in the role of Commander Krause. Even though he’s been playing this character type for decades, Hanks still gives it his all and never phones it in. Sharing the load is Stephen Graham as Lieutenant Commander Charlie Cole. As seen from his work in Snatch (2000), This Is England (2006), Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014) and The Irishman (2019), Graham is the unsung MVP in nearly every project he’s in. Sadly, the charming Elisabeth Shue is wasted in a thankless role, which is a shame considering how much she can bring to a project.
Even though the performances are strong and the script is tight, it is missing a very important element. From start to finish, we are following Commander Krause on his high stakes mission, yet there are many sequences dedicated to fleshing out his personal thoughts, feelings and fears. While that’s of course necessary, the script doesn’t delve into the character and thematic depths as much as it should. While these elements aren’t poorly crafted, there’s not much to develop beyond what’s established in the first act. To be fair, not all war films need a thematic character narrative, as recently proven by Dunkirk (2017). However, Greyhound lays the groundwork for a character focused journey, so it could’ve benefited from spending more time on crafting something truly complex.
It’s fair to say that Greyhound is an old fashioned film. To be clear, that’s less of a criticism than it is an observation. In fact, the old fashioned style is the main feature making Greyhound what it is. It may not quite match the drama of Das Boot (1981), the intelligence of Hunt for Red October (1990) or the tension of Crimson Tide (1995), but it’s still a very satisfying watch. Schneider and Hanks keep this sub-genre alive with a tight script and exciting action. At its very best, it will show younger viewers what classical to-the-point filmmaking was like. At its very least, it’s still a good war drama for an older generation who may be feeling nostalgic.
Best way to watch it: Whatever you do, don’t watch it while on a cruise.