“How seaworthy are you?” This is asked several times during the absorbing and taut new WWII movie “Greyhound.” When Captain Ernest Krause – played by Tom Hanks – asks that question – he wants to know if the neighboring boat that has just been under attack can continue the journey. But the way Hanks inquires it, he implies personal concern for the crew as well – and seems to be asking himself the same question. In addition to the insistent U-boats (German submarines that were terrifyingly effective at sinking vessels) that are attacking them, Krause is battling doubts about his own suitability for the job and that of protecting the lives of thousands of men. All of this is conveyed in Hanks’ face – the actor who has become our national treasure. After his Oscar-nominated starring role in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” Hanks produced with Spielberg the Emmy-winning miniseries “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” which likewise look at the the war through the eyes of the soldiers and marines who sacrificed their lives during WWII. Is there a better actor embodying leadership under stress? He’s encapsulated this in “Captain Phillips” and “Sully.”
Convoys of ships carrying troops and supplies to Great Britain were crucial to the Allied war effort. The convoys were most vulnerable to U-Boats when they went beyond the range of air cover, in the middle of the Atlantic, in an area known as “the Black Pit.” To avoid the U-boats, convoys leaving from various ports in the U.S. and Canada took long zigzagging routes. But once spotted, the U-boats would form wolf packs and just start picking them off. The commander needed to spot them and outmaneuver them, evading their deadly torpedoes.
“Greyhound” plunges you into action with a bare minimum of exposition. I love a film that can be this nimble and cuts to the chase. There’s a brief yet lovely scene with his beloved Eva — played by Elizabeth Shue — in which we learn that this is Krause’s first command. He’s been passed over for promotion three times in his career, but after Peal Harbor, there is a need for more captains, so he’s thrown onto a ship.
The screenplay is written by Tom Hanks – based on the book “The Good Shepherd” by C.S. Forester – and it covers the three-day period that it takes to cross the Atlantic. The action and war sequences never slow down – and we’re barraged with procedural language of running the warship as well as tactical maneuvers. He doesn’t condescend to the audience by explaining the technology nor the maneuvers. What’s remarkable is that we’re quickly heavily invested in Krause’s decision-making as he strives to outmaneuver a crafty and bloodthirsty adversary – and in the fate of everyone on board. It’s ultimately a character study of people under pressure – of how average people are forced to make heroic choices under extraordinary circumstances. As the intense war rages outside – it’s quite moving to experience that the real drama is happening internally within Krause and his constant questioning of himself. “I wouldn’t have to take this risk if I was smarter yesterday,” he confides in his second in command Charlie. “What you did yesterday got us to today,” Charlie tells him.
Director Aaron Schneider has created a totally immersive experience. He keeps most of the story inside the pilothouse – we’re experiencing and seeing things the way the crew members are seeing it. You feel the intensity, the apprehension and the danger. The action sequences are extraordinary – one particular moment when a torpedo was heading towards “Greyhound” I caught myself screaming. The cinematography by Shelly Johnson is bathed in blues capturing an unrelenting atmosphere – once in a while giving us overhead shots that display the magnitude and perspective of the action. The score by Blake Neely is an integral part of the immersion – and suspense. It’s terrific work. In the incredibly paced narrative – there’s one moment it slows down to do a burial at sea and the ship comes to a full stop. “All hands bury the dead” is shouted. It’s quite a stirring and poetic moment. One of the bodies is tangled in the flag for a second – and notice Hanks’ reaction.
“Greyhound” is a rousing tribute to all the people who make incredible sacrifices to keep us safe.
Eva: “The world’s gone crazy Ernie. Let’s wait until we can be together.”
Krause: “I’ll be hoping to see you coming round the corner because when you do, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
Available to stream on Apple TV+
Screenplay by Tom Hanks
Based on the novel by C.S. Forester
Directed by Aaron Schneider
Starring Tom Hanks, Stephen Graham, Rob Morgan and Elisabeth Shue
The History Behind “Greyhound”
“Greyhound takes place at a critical moment in the Battle of the Atlantic, which began in September 1939 and only ended with the Germans’ surrender on May 8, 1945. As Blazich explains, the conflict was centered chiefly on supplies: An island nation, the United Kingdom required a steady flow of imported goods and raw materials, many of which originated in the U.S. The Soviet Union, besieged by the Nazis’ Operation Barbarossa, was also in dire need of food, oil and other essential supplies, which arrived via seaports on the Arctic Ocean. “Had the Atlantic been lost, so too would have Britain,” writes historian James Holland for History Extra. “There would have been no Mediterranean campaign, no D-Day, no VE or VJ Days. The vast, global supply chain upon which the Allies depended … would have been cut, and with it the lifeline.”
Winston Churchill coined the phrase “Battle of the Atlantic” in March 1941, “deliberately echoing the Battle of Britain to emphasize its importance,” according to the Imperial War Museum. Later in life, the prime minister famously claimed that the “only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.” (It’s worth noting, however, that modern historians have since questioned Churchill’s handling of the Atlantic campaign.) The Allies’ main strategy for ensuring cargo’s safe arrival in Europe was sending merchant ships in convoys, or groups escorted by warships and, if possible, aircraft. Though this approach saved many Allied vessels from destruction, the logistical nightmare of moving 40 ships as a cohesive unit greatly reduced individual units’ efficiency, leaving them vulnerable to U-boat hunting squads known as wolf packs. In the early years of the battle, Germany held the naval advantage, easily picking off weakly defended merchant ships, albeit while sustaining heavy losses of its own. After the U.S. entered the conflict in December 1941, U-boats enjoyed great success off the East Coast: Between January and July 1942, 90 ships (including four U-boats) sank off the coast of North Carolina, and more than 1,100 merchant seamen died, according to the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. This tenuous period serves as the backdrop to Greyhound, whose trailer declares, “The only thing more dangerous than the front lines was the fight to get there.” (smithsonianmag.com)
Director Aaron Schneider on “Greyhound”
“Schneider’s path to “Greyhound” was long and winding, but perhaps also touched by fate. He began his career as a cinematographer; among other early gigs, Schneider was a second unit director of photography on “Titanic.” Soon, though, he decided he wanted to become a director. Using his life savings, Schneider funded a short film, “Two Soldiers,” based on the short story of the same name by William Faulkner. “The reason I pulled Faulkner’s short story off the shelf when I was looking for something to adapt was that the spine said, ‘The Greatest World War II American Short Story,’ and that’s because I had just come out of “Saving Private Ryan” with my dad,” Schneider said, referencing Hanks’s other World War II movie. “Two Soldiers” won Schneider an Academy Award in 2004, helped him get financing for his debut feature, “Get Low” with Robert Duvall and Bill Murray, and eventually led to a meeting with Hanks for “Greyhound.”
“I think Tom understood that even though there was all this visceral action going on, he wanted somebody who knew how to penetrate and find a performance with the lens,” he said. “So unlike a lot of other people in the business, who might be looking at résumés and whether or not you won Sundance or something like that, Tom wanted a filmmaker who fit the bill. I was very proud of that, and it was very satisfying for someone like Tom to see that I had this in me. It made me work very hard; it made me work as hard as I ever worked.” Schneider is, by his own account, not a “journeyman” filmmaker. He works on projects that speak to him beyond the paycheck. That’s part of the reason there’s a 10-year gap between “Get Low” and “Greyhound.” (In the intervening decade, Schneider said, he prepped Greyhound, directed commercials, and helped friends with their own films.) “If you’re not feeling it, an audience isn’t either. So you’re doing yourself and the audience a huge disservice if you’re not, at least from my point of view,” he said. “The first step to making a good movie is finding one. Let’s put it that way.” (vanityfair.com)
Actor and Writer Tom Hanks on the Making of “Greyhound”
“We shot on a set in Baton Rouge. And we shot on board the USS Kidd, that is usually sitting on the bottom of the Mississippi River there in Baton Rouge. Everything else in this movie was taken from footage in the form of plates and repurposed in the computer. You can say that much of it is animated, but so much of movies are animated, that are CGI environments, background, skylines, and skies. The water here was water that was taken from reference footage. Shelley Johnson went off with the Canadian Navy out into the frozen environs of the North Atlantic to get an awful lot of the seascapes that are in the movie. All of the ships that appear were taken from reference photographs that were then repurposed and rebuilt by the expertise of our technicians inside computers and whatnot. Which sounds like it’s unique. It’s not. It’s how all movies are made now, no matter what the subject matter, or even in the era that it comes out.” Everything that we see in “Greyhound” is based on real images and reference footage to make it look as real as possible, but it’s ultimately, as Tom Hanks says, “animated.” There’s a feeling from many that practical effects and real locations are inherently superior to creating everything digitally. For what it’s worth, not everything is digital in the film…Hanks continues…”We had the glamorous, old school dunk tanks and fans and hoses and water that was water cannons that were thrown up on us. But, this movie was made on a rocking gimbal of a set that was the bridge and the deck of ship, the codename Greyhound, and on the actual iron steel decks of the USS Kidd, which is an actual Fletcher class destroyer that luckily… I think it might be the only authentically preserved destroyer, uh, certainly in America.” (cinemablend.com)
About Director of Photography, Shelly Johnson
“I’ve been cinematographer since 1980. I have served as Director of Photography on over 75 long-form titles across a wide range of genres and I’m a four-time ASC Award nominee. I value my collaborations with Director Joe Johnston, including “Jurassic Park III,” “Hidalgo,” “The Wolfman” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Other frequent collaborators include Simon West, Bobby Roth and Mick Garris. I was raised in Pasadena, California and studied at Art Center College of Design. I launched my film career as a gaffer on commercials, documentaries and low budget films. Larry Bolens taught me about light and I think his appreciation for the quality of light is what excited me about mastering that focus. Allen Daviau ASC was a key influence and helped me obtain and evolve as a cinematographer and storyteller. To me, a cinematographer never stops learning, which is largely why I started this Blog. Many of the first postings grew from my contributions as moderator of the ASC Instagram page in 2016. I wanted to go into more detail and help provide a source of information that cannot be taught in film schools… the type of insight that comes from conversing with colleagues and honestly recognizing one’s need to be self-aware, patient, humorous, humble and fearless. I find that cinematographers as a group are an open and sharing society and I’d love to continue that spirit for future and existing DP’s.” (shellyjohnsonasc.com)
About Director Aaron Schneider
Filmmaker Aaron Schneider directed the upcoming thriller Greyhound starring Tom Hanks, to be released on July 10, 2020 from Apple.
Schneider’s first feature, Get Low, drew widespread praise when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and earned Schneider the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. His short film Two Soldiers won an Academy Award® for Best Live Action Short Film.
Upcoming projects include the heart-warming drama Bum’s Russ which reunites him with his Get Low cast Robert Duvall and Bill Murray, as well as screenwriter C. Gaby Mitchell. Bum’s Rush will star Anne Hathaway as Pearl, a highly skilled custom boot maker, whose path crosses with a singular stray dog Bum (to be voiced by Bill Murray). These two highly independent individuals find themselves at a serious crossroads, one that will change both their hearts and minds in ways they can hardly imagine.
He began his career as a cinematographer, working in commercials and music videos. In 1995, Schneider joined the groundbreaking legal drama, Murder One, executive produced by Steven Bochco. Schneider earned an Emmy Award® nomination and won two ASC Awards for his work on the show. In addition to numerous network television pilots, Schneider went on to lens feature films, including Kiss The Girls, Simon Birch and 2nd unit for James Cameron on the worldwide mega-hit Titanic.
Born in Springfield, Illinois and raised in Peoria, Schneider always had an interest in movies, particularly visual effects. A chance meeting with Billy Crystal on a family vacation changed his life and career direction. Crystal advised him to attend film school so Schneider transferred out of mechanical engineering into USC‘s School of Cinema-Television. Inspired by the work of legendary guest-lecturing cinematographers and future mentors Owen Roizman and Conrad Hall, he soon gravitated to cinematography and ultimately to directing.
Schneider began his directing career in episodic television but, interested in helming feature films, he decided to self-finance and adapt William Faulkner’s short story Two Soldiers into a short film. The 40-minute short won a top prize at the Palm Springs Film Festival which made it eligible for an Oscar®. Schneider submitted the film to the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts & Sciences which led to his Academy Award®. Catching sight of host Billy Crystal on stage, he thanked the actor for helping guide his career and the two were reunited after the show.