One of the most suspenseful moments in “Greyhound” involves a sneeze.
The US Navy destroyer Keeling, plying the North Atlantic in the early days of World War II, is on the hunt for German U-boats. Sonar coordinates are being relayed up to the bridge in a complex game of telephone. The young swab on the horn with the radio room is passing numbers on to the ship’s captain, Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks), but then the kid pauses. And pauses. And pauses, each second before the sneeze a chance for the quarry to get away and wreak more havoc.
“Greyhound” is a war movie, but it’s really about communication — not only the nuts-and-bolts of the way ships “talked” to each other in 1942 (signal lamps, radio code, etc.) but how an order passes through the nervous system of a hierarchy of men until it becomes action. That such logistics take place with hundreds of lives at stake only makes the pressure more intense.
An adaptation of “The Good Shepherd,” a 1955 novel by C.S. Forester of Horatio Hornblower and “African Queen” fame, “Greyhound” is a drama so tightly focused that it threatens to turn rigid and so dependent on CGI action and environment that it’s at times as gray as a battleship. But the central story is a good one: the crossing of the “Black Pit” of the mid-North Atlantic by a convoy of ships bringing supplies to Great Britain, told from the point of view of the destroyer captain guarding them from a marauding “wolf pack” of Nazi submarines.
The movie is apparently a passion project for Hanks, who wrote the screenplay and whose production company, Playtone, had a hand in getting it made. (Originally scheduled for a spring theatrical release, “Greyhound” will now debut on the Apple TV+ streaming platform.) While the Forester novel went deep into Captain Krause’s head, exploring his abilities and insecurities — America is newly in the fight and it’s his first wartime crossing — the star’s script stays largely on the outside, viewing him as the young men under his command do, with concern and awe.
The film is of a piece with “Sully” and “Captain Phillips,” then, a portrait of an unassuming hero under maximum stress. Krause is the main event; Elisabeth Shue gets to look on adoringly in the opening and closing scenes, and Stephen Graham is sturdy as the captain’s second-in-command, but the rest of the cast is a boyish blur.
The most interesting aspect of Captain Krause, in the novel and almost too lightly touched on here, is his devout Christianity, so at odds with the worldly jostle of the sailors. He prays over each meal, joined only by a Black mess cook (Rob Morgan, of “Bull”), and when the Keeling scores an early success, Krause looks at the flames burning beneath the waves with an expression of profound sorrow. “Fifty less krauts!” exults a midshipman. “Fifty less souls,” corrects the captain.
“Greyhound” — the title is the destroyer’s code name — could use more of those nuances. Aaron Schneider directs with an emphasis on tick-tock action and a mission to orient viewers within his constantly shifting playing board. In addition to the supply ships, there are two other military escorts protecting the convoy, both British, as well as some commercial vessels, and, taunting the captain over the airwaves, the German U-boat commander.
There are close calls with torpedoes and other ships, nighttime conflagrations and desperate daylight maneuvers, but while the movie holds the interest, it never develops the shape or the dramatic momentum necessary to touch on more emotionally expansive themes. (It also ends rather abruptly.) “Dunkirk” or “1917,” this is not. But as a window onto an under-acknowledged arena of combat and a starting point for armchair military historians, “Greyhound” is seaworthy enough to make it across.
Directed by Aaron Schneider. Written by Tom Hanks, based on the novel “The Good Shepherd” by C.S. Forester. Starring Tom Hanks, Stephen Graham. Available on Apple TV+. 91 minutes. R (war-related action/violence, brief strong language).