THE STORY – During the height of the Great Depression, members of the rowing team at the University of Washington get thrust into the spotlight as they compete for gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
THE CAST – Callum Turner & Joel Edgerton
THE TEAM – George Clooney (Director) & Mark L. Smith (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 124 Minutes
In 1984, MGM released “Oxford Blues,” a forgettable romantic comedy that is the only major studio film many can recall that was set in the world of collegiate rowing. Starring Rob Lowe in his heartthrob heyday, the film cared more about stroking in the bedroom than on the water, but the public ignored the film anyway.
Nearly four decades later, MGM has returned to take another swing at the sport, this time with an Oscar-winning actor in the director’s chair. “The Boys in the Boat,” directed by George Clooney, is based on the non-fiction bestseller by Daniel James Brown that chronicles the remarkable true story of the 1936 University of Washington junior varsity rowing team that defied the odds to become champions and represent the United States that year at the Summer Olympics in Berlin. The approach to the sport here is much more serious and dignified than “Oxford Blues,” but even if it avoids the pitfalls of the earlier film, “The Boys in the Boat” has particular problems of its own making.
The film follows the general outlines of Brown’s book: the Depression was still hitting Seattle hard in 1936, with large shanty towns for the poor and destitute encamped just outside of the city. It is there that young Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) lives, studying engineering by day at the University of Washington. When Joe can finally no longer afford his tuition, his buddy Roger (Sam Strike) suggests they try out for the school’s JV rowing team, providing enough pay to keep Joe in school. Both Joe and Roger make the team and find themselves under the watchful eye of the team’s taciturn head coach, Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton).
Brown’s book received praise and numerous awards for its detailed research, particularly into its look at the depths of poverty that Seattle’s impoverished citizens suffered and from which Joe, who was abandoned by his family and forced to live on his own, had to pull himself up. One might have expected Clooney, whose best and most impassioned work as a director (2005’s “Good Night and Good Luck” and 2011’s “The Ides of March”), which embraced the political, might have seen the possibilities of the issue-oriented facets of the story. Instead, he and screenwriter Mark L. Smith shift the narrative to make the film a crowd-pleasing sports story.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, particularly since the real-life events of the story conform so nicely to the mandates of the genre, from the team’s early stumbles to its big comeback. And Clooney totally nails the scenes of male camaraderie that makes the coalescing of the team so believable. However, even though Turner’s determined Joe and Strike’s fast-talking Roger are well-delineated, Smith’s script leaves us wanting in its inability to flesh out the other members of the team. For example, Luke Slattery’s dynamic coxswain Bobby Moch is introduced with a suggestion of a dark backstory, only to fall back into the ensemble without any follow-up. Brown’s book emphasizes the many different backgrounds from which the nine boys in the boat have come, but the film never lets us get to know more than a few. The other six guys are presented as little more than glorified extras, which keeps us from becoming fully invested in them as individual members of the team.
The bulk of the characterization is given to the folks out of the boat. Edgerton brings a welcome gravitas to Coach Ulbrickson, the kind of coach, always in a hat and coat, who looks like he’d rather be anywhere than there but is excellent at what he does. Coach is also the only character given a substantive personal life, as he is backed up strongly by his supportive wife Hazel (Courtney Henggeler) and assistant coach Tom Bolles (a fine James Wolk). The role of wise old sage — a must for any inspirational sports movie — goes to master boatsman Peter Guinness, ably handled by George Pocock, who dispenses pearls of wisdom with the best of them. Only Hadley Robinson (who was so good in HBO’s “Winning Time”) is stuck with a truly one-dimensional role as Joy Simdars, a classmate of Joe’s who does little more than gaze adoringly at him (The submissive role of the film’s female characters and no substantive characters of color were probably true to the time but are still startling to see in a film in 2023).
Clooney has chosen to frame “The Boys in the Boat” as a memory piece, bookending the film with modern-day scenes of an older Joe watching a young boy in a rowboat and thinking back to his own times on the river. Appropriately, Martin Ruhe’s cinematography is bathed in the autumnal glow of memory, which complements nicely with the browns of Kalina Ivanov’s wood-based production design and Alexandre Desplat’s lilting score.
“The Boys in the Boat” follows all the rules of a good sports movie with talented actors and solid tech support below the line. So why is the final result so…bland? All the requisite elements for an inspiring crowd-pleaser are here, but the film lacks any personality quirks that would make it memorable. All of the potential rough edges appear to have been sanded down to make the story as palatable as possible, and that, I’m afraid, has to be laid at the feet of director Clooney.
Many critics have been giving Clooney a pass as a director, given that those early films were so promising. Still, his subsequent efforts have been increasingly disappointing to the point that with two most recent films — this and 2021’s “The Tender Bar” — he’s been reduced to making dad movies. And not very good dad movies, at that. “The Boys in the Boat” may well find its intended audience, but it is still a disappointment for those of us who once saw a flame of passion in this director that now seems to have been extinguished.