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Tom Hanks’s Charisma Can’t Be Torpedoed, Even in a Film Like ‘Greyhound’

The WWII naval drama, whose screenplay was written by the actor himself, strips away some of the less enticing parts of its source material. But there’s not a lot left beyond Hanks’s star power.

Sony Pictures/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

In adapting the new naval drama Greyhound, Tom Hanks earned the first “screenplay by” credit of his 40-year career. He did it by embracing an almost impossible task: converting a deliberately dull and uncharismatic book character into a Hollywood protagonist played by irrepressibly appealing leading man Tom Hanks. As a writer/headliner, Hanks approached the problem of portraying a less magnetic man by stripping out some of that character’s unlovable attributes and amplifying his heroism. But the personality surgery he performed for the film also extracted the psychological elements of a story that might have made the movie more than a brief, fast-moving, and forgettable torpedoes-and-destroyers distraction.

Greyhound, which debuts on Apple TV+ on Friday after being bounced from theaters by the pandemic—an “absolute heartbreak” for its screenwriter and star—and delayed two months from its planned release on the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, is an adaptation of C.S. Forester’s last non–Horatio Hornblower novel, The Good Shepherd. Both book and movie revolve around Commander Krause, the American captain of the destroyer USS Keeling in the early stages of U.S. involvement in World War II. On the page and on the screen, Krause is charged with escorting a convoy of 37 ships across the high and hostile seas of the Mid-Atlantic gap, the region where German U-boats operate with impunity beyond the range of coastal anti-submarine aircraft. It’s Krause’s first command, and neither the commander nor his overstretched four-vessel escort force is assured of proving equal to the task.

Although several of Forester’s books have been adapted into films (most notably The African Queen), it’s not surprising that it took 65 years for The Good Shepherd to complete its own crossing of the gap between bookstore and cineplex (or in this case, streaming service). For one thing, there’s the subject matter: one of many extended, non-decisive skirmishes in the Battle of the Atlantic. Convoy escorts supplied the settings for a few movies and TV series made in the decades during and immediately after World War II, but sub-centric movies have almost exclusively represented that theater of war in theaters since then, even as an armada of World War II stories has stormed our screens like Allied landers—some of them featuring Hanks, a Dad Movie titan who starred in Saving Private Ryan and co-produced Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

Winston Churchill, who twice served as First Lord of the Admiralty, insisted that the Battle of the Atlantic was pivotal: Merchant shipping, the leader of the island empire said, “was at once the stranglehold and the sole foundation of our war strategy.” Although that makes the material seem suitably cinematic, a drawn-out defensive action against mostly unseen enemies doesn’t really lend itself to visual set pieces. And while the stakes of a self-contained battle are obvious to the viewer, it’s difficult to pick out a particular convoy among 450 that turned the tide. This was a war of attrition in which no flags were planted and victory was measured in several sinkings instead of dozens, or hundreds of lives lost instead of thousands.

As Simon Parkin explained in A Game of Birds and Wolves, his 2019 book about anti-submarine warfare in World War II, a chart of Allied shipping losses occupied an entire wall of the operations room at the Admiralty, the Royal Navy’s London headquarters. A red line on the display marked the level at which the losses would be unsustainable. “If the rate of ship sinkings stayed below the line, the British people could survive on the amount of food and fuel that was making it through on the convoy ships unharmed,” Parkin wrote, but “if the graph exceeded the red line, whereby the Germans sank ships at a faster rate than the Allies could build them, the country could no longer continue to participate in the war.”

Any large-scale conflict can be made more relatable through a focus on a single sympathetic character, á la 1917. But beyond the broader challenges posed by making a movie about convoy escort duty, Krause isn’t especially sympathetic, which may explain why Hanks reportedly “sweated over” the film for “almost a decade.” (“The challenges we faced making the movie all came from the original Forester [novel],” Hanks wrote in a recent reflection for Empire.) Krause constantly quotes scripture—U-boats are “the pestilence that walketh in darkness”—and frets about how his more experienced subordinates will perceive his decisions. He maintains strict self-control to restrain his temper and tendency toward despair, and although he makes careless mistakes, he holds himself to exacting standards, chastising himself for being “a weak and beggarly element” when he sways on his feet with exhaustion in spite of “two or even three hours of good sleep the night before last.” His interpersonal handicaps have caused him to be passed over for promotion repeatedly, and he made commander only because of a world war.

In a sense, those shortcomings make Krause more interesting: He’s a shepherd who can’t connect with his flock. “Krause knew academically that a human touch was desirable in these relationships even though he himself had never felt the need of it,” Forester wrote, noting after one of the captain’s ship-wide announcements that “a more sensitive man than Krause, a man with the telepathic perception of the orator, might have been aware of the atmosphere of disappointment that pervaded the ship as he stepped away from the instrument.”

Krause may be a bad hang, but Hanks has that human touch and telepathic perception, and the man who played Mister Rogers can’t entirely tamp down that side of himself here. He’s the eminently likable and deeply trusted figure famous for (almost exclusively) playing people as nice as he is, and he emits more charisma than book Krause without even trying to, however reserved he acts around the Keeling’s largely interchangeable crew members. Nor does the Krause of Greyhound seem as if he’s hardly holding it together. This may be Krause’s first command, but Hanks has played Captains Miller, Phillips, and Sullenberger before.

The book’s brushes with submarines are hours-long, often fruitless guessing games whose outcomes are dictated by turning circles, ammunition shortages, and rates of fuel consumption. That may be the way it was in the war, but it’s not blockbuster-friendly, which explains why Hanks and director Aaron Schneider give Forester’s story several movie makeovers. In the book, Krause pines for Evelyn, an ex-wife who left him years earlier for a young, handsome, “black-haired” lawyer; by contrast, Krause is 42, with “mouse-colored” hair and a nondescript body that Forester describes as “something to be employed upon duty.” (Hanks hasn’t been 42 since Saving Private Ryan.) In the movie, Evelyn—Elisabeth Shue, who gets less screen time than some of the submarines—gently rebuffs Krause’s proposal but doesn’t ditch him; who would dump Tom Hanks? She just wants to wait for the war to be over before they get engaged, and she gives him a miniature ship as a memento to keep in his cabin.

In The Good Shepherd, enemy torpedoes simply sail wide; in the movie, they graze the hull for even closer calls. In the book, Krause agonizes over, and generally resists, calling the crew to general quarters, wary of exhausting their energy reserves; in the movie, he doesn’t hesitate to summon his sailors to battle stations. In the book, Krause’s submerged, serpentine enemies are all the more menacing because they’re rarely seen and never heard; in the movie, U-boat captains in the wolf pack that stalks the convoy break onto Krause’s radio to taunt him and howl like literal wolves, and every glimpse of a U-boat is accompanied by a wailing leitmotif in Blake Neely’s score, which gets a little less eerie with every repetition.

Intelligence breakthroughs and improvements in tactics and technology eventually swung the Battle of the Atlantic the Allies’ way, but in February 1942, when the movie takes place, the outcome was still somewhat in doubt. Greyhound does capture the knife’s-edge existence of open-ocean combat, in which, Forester wrote, unaware, weary men huddled with “three quarters of an inch of iron between them and the cold immensity of the sea,” “two minutes could alter one’s whole outlook,” and “a second’s glimpse of a periscope could decide the fate of the convoy.”

Everything is conspiring to kill Krause and his crew: the heavy seas that limit their speed and maneuverability; the frozen water that renders the decks slippery and the portholes opaque; the primitive radar and sonar that fail to spot the subs; the anxiety, fatigue, and hunger that interfere with sound decision-making; and the enemies themselves. Each call that Krause makes is a product of countless considerations, a best guess synthesized from a multitude of knowns and unknowns. He’s always aware that his instincts may mislead him and his enemies may outsmart him. And whenever he relaxes, a new threat arises.

Unlike the Battle of the Atlantic, Greyhound doesn’t drag on long. Although the running time is officially listed as 91 minutes, the leisurely credits roll only 81 minutes after the opening audio clips and scene-setting intro text. Some of the cuts are not only necessary, but welcome. The book is brimming to the waterline with naval jargon: At one point, Forester writes that Krause “gave his two hundredth successive helm order,” and the reader is privy to virtually all of them. (The naval acknowledgement “very well” appears in the text 215 times, and the words “course” and “bearing” show up a combined 512 times.) Mercifully, the movie is much more economical with its jargon.

But Greyhound’s flank-speed pace also takes a toll in terms of immersion and emotion. Although the film, like the novel, follows Krause for the sleepless, suspenseful two days preceding the convoy’s expected reception of air cover, it leaps ahead from watch to watch, leaving little time for fleshing out Krause’s interior life, developing other characters, or building dread. The ideal version of this story needn’t last as long as the unabridged Das Boot, but in only an hour and 20 minutes, it’s difficult to convey Krause’s exhaustion or the endurance required to outlast his assailants. When the straitlaced book Krause allows himself to sit on a stool and slip off his shoes on the bridge, it’s a stunning concession to extreme circumstances. In the movie, the moment isn’t much more poignant than a drowsy commuter slouching against a subway pole after a hard day at work.

Hanks, who previously wrote or co-wrote (and directed) the originals That Thing You Do! and Larry Crowne, acknowledged at Empire, “In the early drafts of Greyhound I was able to go deep, ignoring budget and physics. … But limited time, the lack of a second gimbal, a stretched budget and story priorities put the kibosh on all that.” Although the Keeling’s inside scenes were shot on a period destroyer, the CGI usually looks like CGI. There’s a more expensive, expansive, and meaningful movie buried somewhere inside Greyhound—a parable about a flawed and not-very-Hollywood hero who rises to the occasion. Greyhound doesn’t make the most of its big debut, but there are worse ways to spend a small, action-packed piece of the summer than on a less familiar look at World War II provided by Hanks, who comforts us whether he’s wearing a fake uniform or donating blood laden with antibodies and warning us to wear masks.

At the end of The Good Shepherd, Krause stumbles “blindly” back to his cabin, filled with fatigue, “black depression,” and “unutterable sadness.” The “Black Pit” isn’t only another nickname for the Mid-Atlantic Gap; it’s also an expression of the absence inside his soul. He’s happy, or as close as he can come to it, only when he finally loses consciousness.

In the movie version, of course, Krause and the Keeling receive a standing ovation from a nearby crew, and the captain can’t help but pause en route to his cabin to bask in the long-awaited applause. Moisture wells up in his eye, and because the tear twinkles with trademark Hanks charm, Commander Krause looks less sad than inspired and redeemed. “There was nothing spectacular to him about a man doing his duty,” Forester wrote about Krause. In that respect, at least, the film is a faithful adaptation. There’s nothing spectacular about Greyhound, either.