At this point I am not exactly sure what the problem with Greyhound is, especially having been made aware of the rather lukewarm reception it got when it was originally released. Granted, it was most assuredly hurt by the raging pandemic and some have perhaps indicated they would be interested in seeing how their perception of this film would change if they had the opportunity to watch it in a theatrical setting. And I don’t think I agree with it being the case. In fact, I’d venture a guess that the most abundant piece of criticism levelled at this film would involve pointing out the shortcomings of its scale.
This, in a way, points me to a realization that Greyhound is a case of misaligned expectations because it simply does not satisfy the requirements of a familiar war-time epic, which it simply is not. It’s not framed as one nor does it aspire to give the viewer an impression of one. The only thing connecting this film to the legacy of a large-scale war movie is its setting, which in itself could fool the viewer into thinking they would be watching a grand effects-laden spectacle that Roland Emmerich’s Midway tried to be. But Greyhound isn’t aspiring to do any of that. Instead, it is a pared down procedural that purposefully and methodically assumes the perspective of exactly one person, the captain of the titular ship played by Tom Hanks.
What this decision brings to the table is an incredible sense of immersion and gravity, all of which serve to underscore one simple trait of war – chaos and the mostly futile attempt on behalf of people trapped within in to bring some measures to control what’s happening around them. In a more large-scale picture this idea doesn’t often come across all that readily because the camera is affixed in multiple perspectives or the narrative itself spans enough time and space to give the viewer a sense of control over what’s happening. Some films successfully undermine this idea, usually by scaling down the events (Das Boot, Saving Private Ryan) or narrowing their focus (1917), which is also what happens in Greyhound. We never get to see what Tom Hanks’s character does not see himself. We never get to hear what he does not hear. We are stuck in his headspace: surrounded by the fog of war, having to guess his next moves based on all available evidence in the span of seconds and reliant on expert opinion of his sailors delivered verbally by frequently overlapping voices and distorted by human fallibility.
Therefore, I honestly fail to see why so many viewers would emerge disappointed with this film. Is it because the effects aren’t up to snuff? Is it because some of the film’s set pieces might come across as fundamentally repetitive? At least as far as I am aware, the idea of participating in any military operation – let alone one that involves operating a complex instrument like a ship run by dozens of people simultaneously under a pyramidal command with one single person making all top-level decisions – is heavily reliant on following procedures. This will naturally translate to certain elements of the narrative looking alike because real-life naval combat leaves very little room to improvise over short periods of time. You must simply realize that what you are watching is a group of extremely skilled professionals doing their jobs and the film truly brings this notion to life despite the fact it is not based on a precise historical precedent. Instead, it is assembled to look like hundreds real Atlantic crossings that had to risk it all to defend their precious merchant ships from ravenous U-Boat wolfpacks. And I truly appreciate what the film is attempting to do.
Greyhound is lean, fast-paced and exciting in the way it pays close attention to what it took to make life-or-death decisions in a combat situation on high seas during that time. It does not aspire to relay historic events or to wow the viewer with its spectacle because – at least from the perspective of sailors this film is focusing on – war was not spectacular. It was scary, unpredictable and relentless. And the film conveys this notion effortlessly, as it rarely slows down and even when it does so, it is only for precious few seconds the characters themselves needed to gather themselves or ponder the gravity of their decision-making. Greyhound is a very well-conceptualized and carefully crafted re-enactment of what it must have felt to carry the souls of hundreds (if not thousands of men) in your chest pocket as you stayed awake for days at a time, propelled by black coffee and stress, and tried not to make mistakes while forcing the enemy (who stayed mostly invisible lurking in the waters beneath you) to make a mistake instead. After all, war is hell and its glory is all moonshine. And Greyhound successfully translates this idea of hell into the experience of a single person.