Sunday, July 12, 2020

Captain's Orders: GREYHOUND

With Greyhound, Tom Hanks has written a film perfectly fitted to his Movie Star persona. Like in his great recent films Sully and Captain Phillips, he’s playing a model of good leadership, built sturdily upon moral virtue, human and humane in the face of unbearable danger and terrible odds. This World War II thriller casts him in the role of a career Navy man captaining his first ship. The mission is to escort a convoy of supply ships from America to England. As the film begins, they’ve lost their air support from the States. It will be a few dark and stormy days until they meet up with the English planes that will take its place. During this time, they will be hunted by a pack of German U-boats, intent on picking off the convoy one by one, sowing confusion and wearing down their resources until they can move in for the kill. The enemy, heard only in ominous taunting radio transmissions, overtly declare themselves wolfish predators, but the sturdy filmmaking, from director Aaron Schneider (Get Low), makes them just as much shark-like, surfacing as if with a fin, circling like Jaws. Strategic aerial shots emphasize the game of cat-and-mouse on display, a bit of literal Battleship maneuvering. They’re on the open ocean, but the film is mostly claustrophobic. Close-quarters close-ups and medium shots in cramped situations have the men (from Hanks to second-in-command Stephen Graham and a host of young character actors) pressed against the bulkheads, straining against the waves, manning their battle stations.

The tension never slacks. It’s a barrage of snappy jargon and terse commands, every gesture and decision drawn with verisimilitude and effective B-movie snap. Based on a novel by Horatio Hornblower author, and WWII vet, C.S. Forester, it feels like it gets every detail right. The radar pings. The water crashes. The rudder shudders. Hanks commands the film with his quiet steady hand, a good man who feels the weight of responsibility, each life resting heavily on his shoulder, each mistake settling uneasily on his soul. His screenplay is a model of efficiency, starting as the mission crosses into its most dangerous passage, with only an exceedingly brief early flashback to humanize his character’s home life. It proceeds full steam ahead into an elegantly simple 80-minute suspense sequence. The clean, crisp frames and pulse-raising ticking clock make the slowly diminishing hours to rescue pass with the adrenaline of stalking enemies, exciting strategy, and painful losses. It’s an effective thriller, not because the whole war or a decisive battle is at stake, but because these particular boats, and the souls on them, matter. Because they’re full of people, and their captain cares, and every wasted round, every wasted second, is one precarious step away from their goal, we care. Every ounce of sentimentality, of relief, is hard-fought, and well-earned.

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