Tom Hanks is the selling point for Greyhound. In it, the actor — and now writer — has found a vehicle that is completely on brand. The film. like the characters in it, is unassuming, a piece of a much bigger tableau.
Commander Ernest Krause is a hero in the classic Hanks mode. He is the slow and steady tortoise in a race against a cocky and arrogant hare. He has greatness thrust upon him, He speaks softly but clearly, without succumbing to emotion in the heat of battle.
Hanks adapted C. S. Forester’s The Good Shepherd, creating a taut story that manages in ninety minutes to make the audience feel the scope of lost lives in the Battle of the Atlantic without losing sight of how intensely those losses are felt in the confined intimacy of a naval vessel. Over 3,500 Allied warships were sunk in the Atlantic and over 72,000 crew and troops were killed. The shepherd has an impossible task, herding a convoy of essential but vulnerable vessels across “the pit,” the area of the Atlantic beyond air cover, where German U-boats seemingly have their choice of targets.
The question is not if some of the ships that Krause is responsible for protecting will be lost but only how many. Seldom has the grim, amoral mathematics that won wars in previous generations been so starkly and clearly depicted. How many casualties are acceptable in order to make more likely the survival of a yet greater number? War by its very nature takes the perfect decision out of play, and it reminds us that the logic of sacrifice is little comfort to those responsible for deciding who will live and who will die, who will be protected and who will have to fend for himself.
Early in the film, after Krause’s destroyer has sunk a German U-boat, the captain calls the lost enemy soldiers “souls” rather than “krauts.” Don’t mistake him or the film for bleeding hearts, though. Pretty soon, there will be actual blood, and the gleeful, mocking radio gloats of Krause’s counterpart will underscore just how quickly war strips all participants of their humanity. If fatigue makes cowards of us all, fear makes us hard and cruel and without remorse.
Krause’s religion, like so much else in the movie, is understated. It never goes away entirely, but it only gets verbalizes in moments of respite. It may strengthen and sustain the Captain, but it is not something he is comfortable talking about. Mostly we see it in Hanks’s pitch-perfect delivery of standard prayers and eulogies. These are not Agincourt speeches designed to rouse men to action; they are words written out in advance for men too busy fighting to craft words that may properly express the depth of their souls’ pain. While the cinematography is modest, built for the small screen, director Aaron Schneider and cinematographer Shelly Johnson let light accentuate the words of prayer where less successful and more conventional filmmakers would settle for easy musical cues.
The events of the film take place two months after Pearl Harbor. The timing means that Krause represents a generation of naval officers who had not known combat, were on the verge of retirement, and were suddenly thrust into circumstances for which they had been preparing their entire lives. Contemporary audiences may actually be helped to be reminded that we are not the first to see our world alter cataclysmically in such a seemingly short period of time. We tell ourselves — we long to believe — .that war is the temporary disruption and that health, peace, and order are the natural states of history.
Maybe they are not. Maybe they are just brief intervals to rest, breathe, love, and live earned for all of us by those few whose lives, for a season, became the next minute, the next decision, when life and death will be decided by how quickly a man can do algebra in his head.