Plot: The story of the 1936 University of Washington rowing team that competed for gold at the Summer Olympics in Berlin. This inspirational true story follows a group of underdogs at the height of the Great Depression as they are thrust into the spotlight and take on elite rivals from around the world.
Review: As a director, George Clooney has delivered many themes, tones, and genres. With The Boys in the Boat, the actor-turned-filmmaker aims for the same inspirational sports tales that have long been Oscar fodder. From Seabiscuit to Unbroken to Rocky, underdog tales have always been rousing cinematic experiences that unify audiences in rooting for the plucky athletes that no one ever thought about. The Boys in the Boat hits all of the requisite notes and formulaic moments that have turned countless movies into box office hits, but this tale never quite moves the needle from a smattering of applause to the full roaring cheers that the story deserves. Beautifully shot with one of the year’s best scores, The Boys in the Boat is unfortunately forgettable despite everyone doing their best with the material they can.
Based on the book of the same name, The Boys in the Boat follows the 1936 University of Washington rowing team. After years of lackluster results in competition, Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) and his colleague Thomas Bolles (James Wolk) are on their last chance to win. With the Great Depression still in full swing, jobs were precious, leading Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) and Roger Morris (Sam Strike) to try out for the rowing team. Rantz, who has been living independently since the age of 14, needs the job that comes with the team to stay enrolled in school and does whatever he can to make it. After the requisite training montages, Morris, Rantz, and six others are selected for the junior varsity squad and get to work. Showing the grit and determination that makes champions, Ulbrickson and Bolles take a shot at putting the junior varsity team in position to represent the United States at the Olympics in Berlin, hosted by Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party.
At two hours, you may be surprised to know that the Olympics-set part of The Boys in the Boat takes up less than a quarter of the film’s running time. If you think the other ninety minutes is dedicated to learning about each member of the eight-man crew, you will also be disappointed. Joe Rantz is our central focus, with Callum Turner taking most of the narrative focus. His romance with Joyce (Hadley Robinson) comes with little fanfare or tension as they equally pursue each other throughout the film. While Joe gets the most attention, even the passing information about the rest of the team feels sparse. We know nothing about Roger other than that he is poor. Don Hume (Jack Mulhern) is the quietest member of the team, but we know he has a musical talent, while Gordy (Joel Phillimore) is a smartass getting a second chance. Of the remaining crew members, one member makes fun of Joe for being poor, but we learn nothing about the rest. In fact, I would probably need to look up the other crew members’ names to know anything about them. This is a major issue with The Boys in the Boat, which would have been better titled Joe Rantz and the Other Boys.
So much of The Boys in the Boat is formulaic that you will likely predict every step of the story along the way. A crew member struggles and the rest must try to pick up the slack. There is a brief divide among the teammates, and they overcome it. There are also sequences meant to be rousing, designed to bring the audience together behind Team USA, but they all feel rushed. The best moments in the film are the rowing sequences, which imbue the film with the only sense of urgency that it has. George Clooney’s choice to film the race scenes from multiple angles, intercut together to form momentum, is far from innovative filmmaking. Still, it is also the only distinctive element in the entire movie. The Boys in the Boat features every stereotypical character you can imagine from a sports movie, including smarmy college boosters, rival coaches, and the reporter who always believed in them, played here by Chris Diamantopoulos. And, of course, we have Peter Guinness as the veteran old man who is the surrogate father figure and Yoda-esque mentor. The villains here are mostly the rival colleges like Cal and Yale, but none more than the German rowing team. Clooney even includes Adolph Hitler watching the race and banging his fists in anger.
Scripted by Mark L. Smith, who has had a hand in writing The Revenant, The Midnight Sky, Overlord, and The Marsh King’s Daughter, The Boys in the Boat was based on the bestselling book by Daniel James Brown which itself took liberties with dialogue and conversations for what is described as a “nonfiction novel.” The adaptation does not imbue the material with much in the way of tension or stakes as the movie moves from scene to scene toward the inevitably victorious conclusion. George Clooney and cinematographer Martin Ruhe lensed the film in a crisp manner that evokes the natural landscape of Washington and the cold formality of Berlin. At the same time, editor Tanya M. Swerling pulls things together by keeping the action moving. Still, aside from the race scenes, most of the film looks bland and strikes a similar feel to Dead Poet’s Society or any early-to-mid-twentieth-century drama. The only standout from the creative team is Alexandre Desplat’s beautiful score, combining jazz and big-band beats with a musical motif that significantly increased my appreciation for this film.
Aside from Callum Turner’s solid American accent and Joel Edgerton‘s reliably gruff performance, The Boys in the Boat is as underwhelming as it is formulaic. George Clooney shoehorns in the crew meeting Jesse Owens during the Olympic Games opening ceremonies with a quick line of dialogue meant to remind us that no matter how much adversity this team faced, they are still more privileged than most based on the color of their skin. The Boys in the Boat is meant to rouse the audience to cheer for Team USA as a unified nation, something sorely missing in this divisive era. As much as I applaud the sentiment, The Boys in the Boat tries to coast on sentimentality and fails to deliver a reason to cheer. This story might have been something if there had been more stakes or investment in the individual rowers. As it stands, this is a mediocre movie parading around as Oscar bait.