' ' Cinema Romantico: Greyhound

Wednesday, April 07, 2021


There is a shot in Aaron Schneider’s WWII film “Greyhound” in which USS Keeling Commander Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks) looks out across the Atlantic from beneath his combat helmet that mirrors a shot in “Saving Private Ryan” (1997) where Hanks’s Captain John Miller looked out from beneath his combat helmet aboard a Higgins boat on D-Day. That is not to suggest these are similar films. If “Saving Private Ryan” had an elaborate wind-up prior to sending its characters on their mission with myriad philosophical ruminative pauses along the way, “Greyhound” is something different, 78 minutes shorter, a tightly calibrated action movie as opposed to a war epic. It opens by simply relaying all necessary exposition via title cards and time stamps before flashing back to a scene in which Krause proposes to his girlfriend (Elisabeth Shue). When she suggests they wait until after the war for marriage, it provides the through-line, a reason for his getting home alive, and then, just like that, “Greyhound” goes.

“Greyhound” is set in the so-called Black Pit, a danger zone in the mid-Atlantic where a convoy of Allied supply ships protected by the Keeling and a few other naval destroyers are left without air cover, leaving them vulnerable to lurking U-Boats. Abiding by the film’s storytelling alacrity, a U-Boat wolfpack pops up right away, throwing the Keeling and all the rest straight into the fury of battle, triggering “Greyhound’s” elegant rising and falling action, thought the latter is kept to a minimum, where even a funeral is cut short. The cat and mouse game sometimes resembles a submarine movie, take your pick, from “Run Silent Run Deep” to “Crimson Tide”, though in sticking to action above water rather than below, “Greyhound” does not induce claustrophobia so much as isolation. The waves are CGI, obviously, but they still effectively convey a sense of the Black Pit’s loneliness, grey, roiling water stretching in every direction, looking very much like a looming, watery graveyard. The Nazi villains are never really seen, only heard, taunting Krause and the Keeling with radio messages, the first of which is conveyed in an eerie scene at night, the American command room bathed in the night vision-necessary red light that makes it feel like a nightmare coming true. 

That isolating air is enhanced by Schneider keeping the action firmly within the Keeling. Though the convoy contains 37 ships, some of which are lost in the fight, there is no cross-cutting between them, limiting communication to the radio. Indeed, though the battle is chock full of maps, radars, bursts of transmission, the nexus is Krause, the camera sticking with him through everything to emphasize how every decision goes through him. It is the kind of actorly responsibility Hanks was born to wear, his face etched with determination and concern in equal measure for every decision he makes, and renders the metaphor of his character being a man of faith, wondering if his men will keep the faith in him, almost superfluous. Though a longtime officer, this is his first voyage as a commander, meaning some of the men under his command have just as much if not more experience in these situations, and the emergent tension is as much between the fretting faces and Krause’s as it is between the Keeling and the U-Boats.

That’s how “Greyhound” prefers to draw characterization, in the essence of the actors, the epxression on their faces. There isn’t time for dialogue to cut to the heart of the matter, just character revealed under extraordinary pressure, Schneider reducing everything here to the most elemental. Late in the movie, a U-Boat torpedo knifes through the water, so close to the Keeling that Krause leans over the railing to watch as the weapon of destruction slides by. It is a harrowing moment, no doubt, yet strangely lyrical, serene even, laying bare war’s thin line between survival and death.

No comments: