Why We Need Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks in Greyhound (Apple TV+)
America’s leading good guy sticks to what works in Greyhound.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T om Hanks is to selfless saints what Billie Eilish is to loose clothing. You might say Hanks is obsessed; whenever there’s a soldier, plane, or ship to be saved, he wants to do the saving. Even if the only thing he stands to rescue is Matt Damon. As dedicated as Hanks is to self-mythologizing, though, I find it hard to be irritated with him, and I irritate easily.

Why do we still like this guy who tries so hard to be likeable? I think Hanks serves a role akin to America’s town clergyman: We want him to be good. We need him to be good. It’s been decades since actors really were role models, but Hanks actually wants to be one, and his striving is admirable.

I think he takes these parts out of a kind of patriotic duty, a need to give us someone in whom we can invest our ideals about how an American man should be: kind, wise, brave, resourceful but humble. He doesn’t quite have the holy glow of Henry Fonda or the folksy magnetism of Jimmy Stewart but he carries on with their mission to personify American goodness. If WWII had happened while he was young, I think he would have answered the call of duty, as Stewart and Fonda did.

Greyhound finds our Tom having yet another rough day at the office. Putting on a captain’s hat for the fifth time, he helms the titular destroyer in a protective convoy guarding merchant ships crossing the Atlantic in 1942. Hanks’s Captain Krause is in command for the very first time, and the German U-boat commanders, who call themselves the Wolfpack, are licking their chops.

Greyhound, which Hanks also wrote from C. S. Forester’s novel The Good Shepherd, is a $75 million picture that is being released on the Apple TV+ streaming service, because COVID zapped a planned theatrical release. It’s a serviceable but unspectacular 90-minute exercise in chasing, running, and gunning that, despite its fairly generous budget, mostly has the feel of a TV movie. The director Aaron Schneider, whose only previous credit is the 2009 indie Get Low, relies heavily on an overbearing but hollow musical score, loaded with timpani, that suggests a Steven Segal–saves-the-world picture.

The toughest trick to pull off in such an esoteric environment, saturated with jargon unfamiliar to the average viewer, is to avoid thunkingly obvious expository dialogue while making us understand what the sailors know and why they make each decision. The Hunt for Red October is a masterwork in this respect, but Schneider does only a so-so job clarifying the tactics involved, though he revels in the primitive mechanics of the work, with officers mapping out courses on glass, with grease pencils and protractors.

If it isn’t terribly original, the film is nonetheless tense with danger and rich with detail. The pile-up of problems facing Krause in the middle 48 hours of the journey suggests what it might be like to ride a horse, have a shootout, send a telegram, and play chess, all at the same time. No wonder the poor captain doesn’t get to eat a meal, or even sit down, for 48 hours. The man’s feet start to bleed so badly he has to put on slippers, and this is a classic Hanks touch: The suffering is palpable. So is the chaos. At one point, Krause is exchanging fire with a submarine at night when he almost gets hit head-on by a merchant ship coming the other way. The price for getting any decision wrong, or even just a bout of bad luck, shall be death by burning or drowning, possibly both at the same time. The stakes are not low.

There’s an air of gravitas, or at least maturity, about Greyhound that is welcome. Eschewing the smart-arsed one-liners that tend to afflict macho movies, it instead leans on King James zingers such as “the night cometh when no man can work” (John 9:4). Such friendliness to the Bible helps to ground the film in its period — 1940s America knew the Good Book as well as we today know the J. K. Rowling books. Its emphasis on teamwork rather than individual personalities is also notable and likely to appeal to action-focused male viewers who tend to get impatient with soapy flashbacks and subplots about the home front. There’s none of that my-gal-Sally-is-working-at-the-roller-rink-in-Milwaukee exposition, and Hanks’s character is the only one who gets any backstory at all (a brief prologue and two five-second flashbacks reveal that he has a girlfriend, and she’s Elisabeth Shue).

Unlike in standard war movies like, say, last year’s Midway, all we know about the crew is contained in how they do their jobs. This approach enhances the naturalism — the film never seems phony — but also limits its dramatic impact. Everyone but Hanks and his loyal mess servant (Rob Morgan), a black man in a white uniform, is essentially interchangeable; they might as well be named Sailors 2 through 30. Moreover, 95 percent of the dialogue is purely functional (“right rudder hard over”). It would be reductionist, but not terribly unfair, to describe the movie as “Ships go blam-blam at one another for an hour and a half.” It works, but only because of Hanks. Few other actors could have kept this boat afloat.

 

 

 

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