«Greyhound» review: is it short? Yes. Is it exciting? You bet!

«Greyhound» review: is it short? Yes. Is it exciting? You bet!

Luca Fontana
Zurich, on 22.07.2020
Translation: Patrik Stainbrook

Naval battles. Warships. Submarines. Torpedoes. Explosions. Screaming. Corpses. Heroes. Villains. And Tom Hanks. «Greyhound» has everything a war movie needs.

One thing in advance: there are no spoilers in this review. I’m not going to talk about anything that isn’t mentioned in the trailers.


The North Atlantic in February 1942 is rough and deadly. Hundreds of convoys, consisting of dozens of US supply ships, support the Allies in Europe in the fight against Nazi Germany. One thing is certain: if trans-Atlantic supplies dry up, the Allies will lose. And Nazi Germany has a weapon against these convoys that seems almost insurmountable.

Submarines.

To protect the passing supply ships from the Nazi submarines, warships provide escorts: shepherds looking after their flocks. Sheep that would otherwise be at the mercy of a ruthless and evil wolf pack. Captain Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks) is one of these shepherds. An inexperienced man on his first Atlantic crossing as captain.

He faces six enemy submarines.

Short, really short. But also really exciting

It's weird. «Greyhound» isn't a long film. It runs for 80 minutes – only 80 minutes – credits not included. Not much for a war movie. Alarm bells should already be ringing left and right at this. How can any decent plot be developed? «Greyhound», however, has one weapon that the film uses brilliantly: Tom Hanks. His charisma carries the film.

Tom Hanks also wrote the script. Not for the first time, by the way. But it is the first time that Hanks hasn't directed a script he wrote himself. Aaron Schneider has that job. Schneider last directed «Get Low» – in 2009. That was a long time ago.

More alarm bells.

Tom Hanks as Captain Ernest Krause.
Tom Hanks as Captain Ernest Krause.
Apple TV+

How does «Greyhound» manage to stay afloat, metaphorically speaking? I don't know, but one thing's for sure: «Greyhound» is exciting. Even from the first frame: Captain Krause, Hank's character, wakes up on his cot in a claustrophobic little cabin of the USS Keeling, a Fletcher-class destroyer. Code name: Greyhound. Krause says his prayers. Put on his uniform. Goes to the bridge. He's just about to sip his coffee. But suddenly – it's the alarm.

«Huff Duff reports a German transmission on zero-eight-seven degrees. Distance one-five to two-zero miles. Probably a submarine, sir.»

The hunt begins.

The film doesn't give you time to catch your breath. There are no breaks. No moments when viewers have time to process what they've seen. Instead, there's the hunter, who'll soon become the hunted. After all, a single submarine is a nasty but defeasible enemy for a warship. But when the pack of wolves hinted at in the trailer appears – a group of six Nazi submarines – the hunt turns into a relentless struggle for survival.

«A wolf pack is following us. They will attack as a group» – «Yes. They'll wait for nightfall when we can't see anything.»

Ship vs. submarine in the North Atlantic.
Ship vs. submarine in the North Atlantic.
Apple TV+

Wolf packs. The term is by no means an artistic concept chosen for dramaturgical reasons. It's the English description for the dreaded German wolf pack tactics, perfected after first submarine experiences in World War I, specifically developed for the destruction of allied convoys.

«Greyhound» is a perfect example for how deadly these tactics are.

Crazy tempo, thrilling music and epic camera work

Tom Hanks's script gets more intense every few minutes. It essentially details the two-day crossing in which the convoy has to manage without rescue air support. It's waiting off the coast of Liverpool, England, due to the limited range of aircraft. Until then, Krause and his crew are on their own: sometimes the submarines attack in a group, sometimes individually. Sometimes with torpedoes at a distance, sometimes at close range with rocket guns. The enemies are as cunning as they are sly.

Blake Neely's score – the composer is rather unknown, he made series like «Arrow» and «The Flash» – features a high electric guitar – or is that an e-cello? Either way, it sounds like the call of a killer whale (around 1:13 in the clip below), patiently circling its prey before noticing the right moment to strike.

This nerve-racking crossing has both Krause and the audience sweating like mad.

Aside from the cries of killer whales – or the howling of a distant wolf pack, if that was the actual intention – Neely's music isn't very innovative. Most of the time, it's the percussion and effects which give a grandiose driving feel to the score, akin to Hans Zimmer. This creates a constant looming never-ending threat. Interesting, but not innovative. Neely's real achievement lies in never letting it degenerate into meaningless pomp.

And when it's quiet as a mouse, there are other things that keep the crew and spectators on their toes. For example, a threateningly nasty crackle from the radio when a German U-boat officer discovers the radio frequency of the US fleet:

«Greyhound, good luck surviving the night,» says the voice of Thomas Kretschmann.

A menacing crackling sound from the radio is disturbing the crew.
A menacing crackling sound from the radio is disturbing the crew.
Apple TV+

With all this, it's up to director Aaron Schneider to keep an overview for us viewers. He does this well. On the one hand, he skilfully moves the camera through narrow corridors. On the other hand, the director repeatedly «zooms out» from the action to document the fighting efforts from a bird's eye view.

Similar to Peter Jackson's «Lord of the Rings» trilogy.

Ship vs. submarine in the North Atlantic.
Ship vs. submarine in the North Atlantic.
Apple TV+

The USS Kidd, the last warship with a WWII layout, was used for the interior shots. Schneider uses this again and again for historically accurate close-ups of the equipment and instruments. Clever.

But I do have one criticism.

We get Tom Hanks, but we're lacking characterisation

Apart from Tom Hanks' Krause, «Greyhound» has nothing that comes close to a real character. Even Krause is pretty bland. The character possesses nothing that hasn't already been seen in dozens of other films: he's religious to the bone, but he loses faith in himself and somehow has to win it back.

A doubtful Captain Krause, keenly observed by his crew.
A doubtful Captain Krause, keenly observed by his crew.
Apple TV+

The rest of the characters in the film are as painfully superficial as they are interchangeable. Especially the young crew. This is crippling to a war movie: if viewers don't care about the characters, there's no tension. If there's no tension, the whole film falls flat.

Nevertheless, «Greyhound» still works. Not because of any clever writing, but simply thanks to Tom Hanks' brilliant performance. Tom Hanks radiates a lot of screen presence with very little acting. After all, the man has won two Oscars and has been nominated for four. As bland as his character is, we still wish that at least he will successfully complete his mission and earn the respect of his men.

Okay, there's another character that provides empathy aside from Hanks: Charlie Cole, played by Stephen Graham, Krause's first officer and closest friend. Their friendship seems real. The way they look at each other, mostly hidden from the rest of the crew, show doubt and powerlessness. How are they going to take on six submarines by themselves?

Stephen Graham (left) as Charlie Cole.
Stephen Graham (left) as Charlie Cole.
Apple TV+

However, they're still a long way from rivalling the chemistry between Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in «Crimson Tide».

Thrilling, although a little short

«Greyhound» is neither «Saving Private Ryan» nor «Hunt for Red October». We just don't care enough about the characters. This is due to extremely short running time, which doesn't allow itself a quiet moment to get to know and appreciate the crew of the Greyhound. Would 30 to 40 minutes more have done the film good? Yeah, without a doubt.

For this reason alone, I could declare the film a failure. But I won't. «Greyhound» is tight. The pace is perfect. During its short 80 minutes plus credits, the film is a nerve-racking adrenaline rush every second of the way. In terms of staging, «Greyhound» never needs to hide.

Aside from thrillingly staged submarine and naval battles, it's mainly Tom Hanks who carries «Greyhound» and at least adds a touch of depth. Otherwise, the film is pure anxiety – in a positive sense.

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I'm an outdoorsy guy and enjoy sports that push me to the limit – now that’s what I call comfort zone! But I'm also about curling up in an armchair with books about ugly intrigue and sinister kingkillers. Being an avid cinema-goer, I’ve been known to rave about film scores for hours on end. I’ve always wanted to say: «I am Groot.» 


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