[su_dropcap size=”5″]W[/su_dropcap]ith the possible exception of horror, no movie genre is more reliant on clichés than war films. Even the best and brightest–I’m looking right at Saving Private Ryan and The Longest Day–occasionally lapse into comfortable tropes. Greyhound represents a successful attempt to boil away unneeded ingredients and reduce the experience of war down to its essence: A frightening, exhausting siege that pushes those who wage it to their physical, emotional, and spiritual limits. As written by Tom Hanks and directed by Aaron Schneider, this Greyhound moves with pounding, relentless speed, and dares the viewer to keep up with it.
The film takes place in 1942, when the United States is still wading into the cesspool of World War II. Huge convoys, filled with basic essentials, munitions, and troops, make to perilous journey across the Atlantic to Great Britain. Along the way, Nazi U-boats prowl like schools of piranha. In an effort to prevent wholesale slaughter, the Allies assign groups of destroyers to escort these ships to European soil. Along the sea lanes, a stretch of hundreds of miles lies beyond bomber range, leaving the convoys especially vulnerable to German attack. The bulk of the film takes place in one of these dead zones.
Tom Hanks plays Commander Ernie Krause, who is assigned to take charge of the escort group. Krause is pious, taciturn, and anxious. He uses snippets of Scripture to guide his command decisions, and admonishes the use of foul language from any of his men. Krause’s chilly demeanor mirrors the environment itself: The skies stay a soot-stained gray. Churning seas pummel the shivering men with an icy mist.
Almost immediately, the convoy comes under a swarming U-boat attack. Because they can submerge, the Germans enjoy an enormous tactical advantage. They strafe the group with relentless fury, picking off ships with maddening regularity. Armed with a sturdy sense of duty, Krause has to keep his exhaustion at bay and find a way to outwit his unseen enemies.
Most of Greyhound feels like one continuous chase sequence. Because there’s little in the way of character development, most of the dialogue is a deluge of naval jargon that gets shouted frantically. You might think you’ll get lost by this, but Hanks and Schneider do such a great job of providing context and telling the story visually that everything makes sense. In fact, the unvarnished lingo actually bolsters the story with a heightened sense of authenticity.
That strength gets further aided by the special effects. Unlike the recent Midway, which slathered every frame with CGI so unconvincing it made Grand Theft Auto look like it was filmed with a GoPro, Greyhound’s digital doctoring, getsdone with much more restraint. Many of the battles are filmed from a distance, or at night. This makes the action much more convincing, a must for a story that bounds from tense sequence to the next.
Hanks anchors the film, but you already knew that. I mean, when does he ever not elevate a movie? On paper, I’m sure Krause was a much more aloof and unappealing character, but Hanks endows him with just enough…well, Hanksian charm that you’ll have no choice but to root for him. Outside of Stephen Graham’s steadying first officer, most of the other sailors are a blur of soaked, saucer-eyed young men getting their first taste of combat. We don’t get to know them, but we don’t have to: They’re the millions of men–hell, teenagers, kids–who made uncommon heroism feel strangely commonplace during that war.
But Greyhound never opts to make big statements like that. It’s mainly just a gripping, intelligent piece of entertainment. We only see one major war movie cliché: An early flashback scene depicts Krause proposing to his great love (Elisabeth Shue). It sits alongside the rest of the movie like oil and water, and demonstrates just how lean and mean Greyhound really is. If anything, this cliché only proves how much war movies don’t need them to be accessible and exciting.
91 min. PG-13.