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‘Greyhound’: Tom Hanks war movie seldom plunges beyond surface battles

The actor plays a ship commander on his first mission in an Apple TV+ action drama heavy on naval maneuverings and light on character development.

Cmdr. Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks) oversees a U.S. Navy destroyer leading an Allied naval convoy in “Greyhound.”
Apple TV+

We are in a posh hotel lobby in San Francisco, December 1941 — just weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Cmdr. Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks), USN, in full uniform, springs up when his beloved Evie (Elisabeth Shue) enters. Evie gazes up at the angel on the Christmas tree, and then their eyes meet, and she comes to him.

Ernest tells Evie he’ll be assigned to Jamaica, the Bahamas and Cuba for training before active duty, and he asks Evie to accompany him to the Caribbean so he can propose to her on a beach. Evie says she’d love to — but they should wait to marry until after the war, so they can truly be together.

This early scene in the World War II action drama “Greyhound” is … problematic. Even though the 64-year-old Hanks and the 56-year-old Shue look amazing, we can’t help but wonder: What’s the story with these two characters? They look like a couple who have been together for 30 years, but they’re just now in the courtship stage?

Spoiler alert: “Greyhound” never returns to the half-hearted romantic subplot, as we spend the remainder of the movie aboard the U.S.S. Keeling, a Navy destroyer leading a convoy of 37 Allied ships across the ocean as part of the Battle of the Atlantic, which waged from 1939 to 1945 and was the longest military campaign of WWII. Unfortunately, despite the no-doubt honorable intentions of writer-star Hanks and director Aaron Schneider, “Greyhound” relies far too much on slick but obvious and overdone CGI and gets bogged down in the minutiae and jargon of naval wartime maneuverings at the expense of viewer accessibility and character development. (Not to mention some battle scenes are rendered through such a dark filter, it’ll give flashback nightmares to certain “Game of Thrones” fans.)

A series of opening title cards sets the stage for this story, which is inspired by true-life events but is actually based on the 1955 novel “The Good Shepherd” by C.S. Forester. “Convoys of ships carrying troops and supplies to Great Britain were crucial to the Allied war effort,” the tale begins, as the intrusive, anachronistic, Michael Bay-esque score starts pounding away at our sensibilities (and rarely lets up throughout the movie). “The convoys were most vulnerable to U-Boats when beyond the range of air cover, in the middle of the Atlantic, in the area known as ‘The Black Pit.’ ” From time to time thereafter, graphics are employed to reflect communications between air escorts and ships, between ships, etc., and also to identify various ships and subs we see from a distance. It’s as if the filmmakers realized they’re delivering a muddled effort and they’re doing everything they can to help us understand what’s transpiring.

Hanks’ Krause is a potentially complex character, given we learn this is his very first command at an age when most of his peers are retiring. We know he’s a man of faith because he pauses for a silent prayer before every meal, no matter how chaotic the surrounding circumstances. (It’s a running theme that the dedicated and seemingly indefatigable Krause never actually consumes a meal, instead opting to gulp down another cup of coffee before resuming his command.) But we never find out why it took the Navy so long to entrust Krause with a ship, or why he is perhaps too compassionate and understanding when his men make sometimes fatal mistakes. Krause remains an enigma to the very end — and yet he’s a fully realized, three-dimensional character compared to the interchangeable supporting players in “Greyhound.” There are times when Krause calls an underling by the wrong name, and we can see where he’s coming from because we, too, haven’t gotten to know that guy.

Hanks’ commitment to honoring the heroes of World War II through his creative partnership with Steven Spielberg is legendary, from “Saving Private Ryan’ to “Band of Brothers” to “The Pacific.” They have teamed up to make one of the best movies and two of the best miniseries ever about the second World War. (A third WWII miniseries from the duo, titled “Masters of the Air,” is reportedly bound for streaming on Apple TV+). But while “The Greyhound” pays great attention to detail and feels authentic, especially in the claustrophobic and intense scenes in the bowels of the ship, the battle sequences that look like something straight out of a video game dominate the movie and keep us at a safe distance from getting emotionally involved on a level this story deserves.