Like a cartoon of an ill-informed soldier on a desert island, British cinema has been fighting World War Two in its head for decades; the need to remind ourselves (and the outside world) about British resilience was fuelled by Brexit, and stifled any potential for self-examination. America has a similar need to provide bona fides to its previous character as its president seeks to re-admit Russia to the G7 group; this handsome naval drama, streaming on Apple TV+, harks back to the best of US/British co-operation, and should warm the cockles of those who remember what once made these countries great.
Tom Hanks reaches back into the past to exhume the name and reputation of CS Forester, author of the Hornblower books (and The African Queen); sea-going heroism is the subject. Forester’s The Good Shepherd was published in 1955, part of a booming industry of novels showcasing the kind of derring-do, bravery and sacrifice that helped win the war. Hanks adapted this unfashionable novel for the script, and plays Ernest Krause, a fictional captain on his first command, escorting Allied craft across the Atlantic under the watch of predatory U-boats.
It’s something of a critical cliché to say ‘twenty minutes too long’ or ‘could have dropped a third’ or even ‘there’s a great 90 minute film buried in there.’ For once, and this is rare, none of these things are true. Greyhound is as fleet-footed as the USS Keeling herself, barely offering 90 minutes of narrative, stripped down, cinematic and on point. Intensity is the game, and we follow Krause as he hunts and is hunted by a wolf-pack of submarines through the Black Pit. Hanks plays to his own strengths, his ability to protect humanity, vulnerability, and bravery, and the results are inspiring. His Krause is terse, thoughtful, tormented, and utterly relatable as he treads the deck in carpet-slippers. While many multi-character WWII films make you feel like you’re like reading Wikipedia entries, Hanks doubles-down on character and gets under the skin of the captain to great effect; he never forgets that Krause is operating in a vacuum of uncertainty.
With Quibi seemingly stuck in the gate, Aaron Schneider’s handsome production is a great pick-up/acquisition for Apple TV+, their first ‘must-see’ product that should launch a millions free-trials. The action is constant, but the effects are sparingly used and effective; there’s at least a handful of hair-raising ‘wow’ moments that really deserve to be seen on the big screens as soon as cinemas re-open, and re-watch potential is sky-high. An awards-season re-issue would seem like an obvious next move; Greyhound makes a virtue of being fictional since the audience don’t know if this fictional story deals with eventual success or failure, and that edge makes it utterly compelling.
Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk aside, WWII has been something of a cinematic dead-end of late, with film-makers too keen to view the past through the prism of today’s issues. Focusing on deep blue heroics, Hanks earns his chops as a writer, but also reminds audiences worldwide that America once led the free world. Greyhound is a fiction that relates to a world of facts without alternatives; that the bravest took the biggest risks, and made the greatest sacrifices. It’s hard to imagine what a character like Krause would make of the US’s current dalliance with the symbol of the swastika; perhaps films like this will remind us all that America’s greatness as a world power wasn’t always a question of fake news.
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