Movie Review: Greyhound (spoiler-free)

I’ve heard a lot of great things about Greyhound, the new World War II Naval drama starring Tom Hanks and, I guess, Elisabeth Shue (more on that later). I read that it was the most realistic naval war movie in years, if not ever, and the fact that it takes place on a Fletcher-class destroyer makes it even better. Talk about a movie tailor-made for this blog! So, naturally, I had to see it.

Since this is an Apple TV movie, I had to sign up for a free trial for the Apple TV service in order to watch it. Five bucks a month isn’t a terrible price as far as streaming services go (it is a lot less than Netflix) but it all adds up after a while. I will surf it some in the next few days, and if you have any recommendations for what I should watch on there, please leave a comment and tell me!

Anyway, once the trial was set up, I queued up the film and sat back with some chips and a beer ready for a show. Then I looked at the runtime: one hour and 31 minutes! This is definitely a one-beer film. And even that is generous, since the interminably long credits start to roll with 12 minutes left in the film, effectively making this a 75 minute movie.

75 minutes? Tom Green’s movies are longer than that. The Love Guru, possibly the worst film ever made, clocks in at 84 minutes. Even Uwe Boll can crank out 100 minutes of whatever the heck it is that Uwe Boll makes when he points a camera at something. Why is Greyhound so short?

The answer to that question, I think, is key to figuring out this movie.

Let’s go back to the resounding praise most folks seem to have for the film’s accuracy. Greyhound speaks the language of a Tin Can deck. Officers and crew are constantly barking out and then repeating orders, sonar readings, sub sightings, etc. The word “bearing” is probably shouted at least 200 times. Director Aaron Schneider revels in this staccato dialogue, which realistically conveys the urgency Commander Ernst Krause and his crew felt during those long hours while escorting a large convoy across “the Black Pit” without the aid of air cover during the Battle of the Atlantic. Both the dialogue and the editing come at breakneck speed – I found it helpful to watch with closed captioning – which underlines just how quickly a battle with a U-boat can turn in real time.

Without moving into spoiler territory, let’s just say that Schneider fits a lot of stuff into 75 minutes. And the film’s pacing is deliberate enough that I come away from it thinking that if it were to run any slower, with those long deliberative character pauses that we see in films like Hunt for Red October, then it would just be another hackneyed Naval combat movie. I applaud Schneider for not embracing that schtick, since if he were to do that, with Tom Hanks as the lead no less, he still would have made a fine – if not great – movie.

But I don’t think that this movie is great, either, precisely because the entire film seems to channel 1917 and Dunkirk in making a real time-conscious war movie. When successful, the real time effect, pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock and popularized by the Fox series 24, accentuates the heart-pounding drama of the story minute by minute. Greyhound cannot truly hew to this format, however, since the action takes place over two days (each sequence is preceded by a title card indicating the name of the corresponding watch period). As a result, the film is a stream of crises, one after another, boom boom boom. By way of comparison, it is not unlike an edited YouTube video, in which the narrator’s pauses are cut, thus resulting in a continuous if visibly disjointed presentation. While that is not necessarily bad in and of itself, Schneider’s commitment to accuracy and the resulting jargon-laced dialogue makes the pacing frenetic and, at several points, tiresome. It’s a bit like listening to air traffic controllers for a hour on end, but instead of listening in on the radio transmissions, you’re standing in the middle of the tower at 9am on a Friday at JFK. The chatter soon turns into a cacophony.

The film is not totally robotic – Hanks is fantastic (as always) and there are some genuinely emotional and even solemn moments in the movie. However, it needs to be diluted a bit. Elisabeth Shue’s character is in the movie for about three minutes, and then she is gone (presumably to go babysit some mischievous kids in a Chicago suburb). Why is she even in the previews? Her disappearance five minutes in hints at a larger indictment: that there is almost zero character development. We learn three (mostly spoiler-free) facts about Commander Krause: he is devoutly religious, he drinks a lot of coffee, and his shoes may be a size too small. Schneider and Hanks lionize, rather than humanize, his character, and in this sense Krause is basically Captain John Miller in a different service uniform. With the recent trend in war movies to make protagonists into regular, flawed humans (see The Pacific, Band of Brothers, The Hurt Locker, etc), and not Greatest Generation caricatures, this seems like a misstep. It would not have taken a lot of money or time to shoot a few extra scenes in the San Francisco hotel where the movie opens and add some backstory, some flashbacks, some flash-forwards, or just something to break up the flow.

Apart from those criticisms, however, Greyhound is a fast-faced, entertaining, and perhaps even instructive war movie. It is definitely worth watching.

But is it worth subscribing to Apple TV? Well . . . I just discovered that every episode of Fraggle Rock is on there, so I suppose the question is now moot, at least for me.

OK, Apple TV, I’ll bite . . .

What I’m Reading: Tin Cans and Greyhounds

Frankly, I’m glad that Clint Johnson hopped off the Word Processor and immediately emailed his editor the second his narrative reached V-J Day, because otherwise I would not have had the benefit of this book for my own research. Published last February, this comprehensive and technical history of the destroyer during World War I and II, Tin Cans and Greyhounds: The Destroyers that Won Two World Wars, covers in exhaustive – and sometimes exhausting – detail the story of this type of ship.

Destroyers were the true jacks of all trades during the World Wars. Originally designed during the 19th century by the British Navy, they evolved over the next several decades in response to changing technology, growing battleship displacements, and the exigencies of war. Airplanes and submarines both spurred additional destroyer development. Even though the United States Navy spent hardly any money during the 20s or early 30s building or developing new destroyers, they were adept and resourceful when repurposing much of the retired WWI destroyer fleet.

Johnson’s narrative from the destroyer’s origins through the late 1930s is a sweeping, fascinating story of the destroyer’s shifting popularity and ever-evolving utility. He does a fantastic job of not only discussing American destroyers, but explaining how their development mirrored that of similar-sized ships in rival navies. We learn, for instance, that while British sailors appreciated the dozens of ships transferred from America’s aging destroyer fleet to the Royal Navy in 1940, they would have preferred sleeping in their customary hammocks as opposed to the Americans’ bunk beds.

Overall, Johnson’s thesis is that destroyers were integral, and perhaps even indispensable, to Allied Naval victories during both World Wars. In particular, the old “battleships versus aircraft carriers” debate that roiled the Navy intelligentsia throughout the 1940s may have missed a key point: that without a healthy number of destroyers to protect and assist the battleships, carriers, and the supply chain, the superiority of one over the other would be entirely moot. This claim is both grandiose and tautological – it is absurd to claim that these destroyers won both World Wars, but it is equally implausible to deny or rather ignore their obvious importance, particularly when so many people across the world could have claimed to have moved the sequence of events a certain way at precisely the right moment. Yet perhaps that kind of rhetorical (if not exactly historical) claim is necessary to highlight the destroyer class’s many important contributions to both war efforts, which this book does in spades. After all, books claiming that “X won World War II” are a cottage industry these days. How else can you get someone to buy one?

While I agree with Johnson’s argument, the second half of his book oscillates between the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters, which creates a disjointed narrative. Moreover, his chapter division along these lines – Pacific Theater, 1942; Atlantic Theater, 1942; Pacific Theater, 1943; and so on – seems unnatural and arbitrary. I sympathize with the plight of the narratively-focused historian who has to break down what would otherwise be a very long chapter into shorter yet intelligible units . . . I dealt with this problem myself when organizing my horse stealing book, and it took me a while to figure out an outline that broke apart while also bringing together the story I wanted to tell. But it does not seem like the author (or his editors) put much thought into this. Which is a shame, because I want the story of the destroyer to be an actual story, not a CV of its successes and failures. And that last point hints at my other concern with this book, which is that the World War II chapters fail to bring the author’s many stories and pieces of information together into a cohesive whole. These chapters lack a narrative strand, and instead seem to move from one story to another without so much as a segue.

Organizational concerns aside, this is a very well-researched book, and it is a necessary volume for students of World War II, Naval history, and anyone who has ever enjoyed one of Tom Clancy’s technical novels about various kinds of military weapons (anyone remember Armored Cav?). It also plugs a gaping hole in the hull of naval scholarship by providing a much-needed historical reference and overview of the chronically understudied and widely misunderstood destroyer. I personally found it useful as well, and will likely cite it often.