Rowing crew is no easy feat. The endurance and physical effort necessary for eight people to work in perfect unison is not for the faint of heart (take it from this former high school rower). That needed training time on and off the water is one thing director George Clooney nails in his new underdog sports drama, The Boys In The Boat.
Based on the best-selling non-fiction book by Daniel James Brown, the film tells the true story of the 1936 University of Washington men’s rowing team who, despite their inexperience, beat the heavily favoured Ivy League crews and went on to compete for the gold medal at the Berlin Summer Olympics.
At the height of the Great Depression, university student Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) finds himself close to being kicked out of school because he can’t afford the rest of his tuition. It’s a problem that impacts many students who, like Joe, try and fail to find part-time work to support their studies. When Joe learns that a spot on the school’s second-tier rowing crew comes with both a wage and a bed, he dedicates himself to landing a spot. Under the guidance of coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), who must turn out a team that competes with top-tier Ivy League crews, Joe and his crewmates must put in the hard work at a time when their school and country needs them the most.
Rowing often doesn’t get proper credit as a physically intensive sport, but through the storytelling here, the hard work and dedication it takes is at least evident. When dozens upon dozens of students show up for the first day of tryouts, they’re told that the expected work will cause some of them to drop out in the first week. They need to be motivated beyond a paycheque and bed if they mean to find success in the crew.
It may be hard to picture now, but rowing was one of the most popular spectator sports around in the 1920s and 1930s. With their country behind them, the University of Washington team would ultimately win the gold medal in Berlin, just narrowly besting Italy and Germany in a morale-boosting win.
But therein lies the problem with The Boys In The Boat. From the outset, audiences already know that the crew will defy the odds to win. It’s a feel-good sporting story that we’ve seen time and again, while knowing the outcome is inevitable. But even when sports films reach their foregone conclusion, like the recent Red, White And Brass or Next Goal Wins, it’s really about the road that got us there. In Clooney’s film, that journey is a slog as challenging as the sit-ups and daily rowing practice to be endured. There is little joy or surprise to be had here, with central characters that can often come across as dry as the dusty Depression Era-hued colour palette.
It’s not the fault of the mostly unrecognizable cast, save for Fantastic Beasts’ Callum Turner. The actors do a fantastic job of turning themselves into believable rowers, no doubt due to a training regimen as intense as their on-screen counterparts. Unfortunately, each character is barely distinguishable from the man next to him. It feels as though, in attempting to stay true to the real-life sportsmen, screenwriter Mark L. Smith forgot to put any life into the characters beyond the stereotypical. It feels like a dull play-by-play retelling that, after having watched the film, will be immediately forgotten.
There is no doubt that Clooney is a competent director with a great eye, but the path he treads here feels remarkably like 2008’s Leatherheads. Though not his most interesting film, we’re reminded that we’ve seen him produce a sports drama before and with arguably greater success. He knows how to set up a great shot of the boats on the water, which is good because there are a lot of them here. Watching a regatta can be exciting, especially in the almost too-close-to-call final strokes to the finish line, but that’s all The Boys In The Boat has to offer. Repeatedly. Though have no fear, like all films in this genre (from Rocky to Cool Runnings), this film comes with its obligatory training montage too.
The true standout of the film is the score by Alexandre Desplat. Hitting all the monumental moments with just the right notes, Desplat’s score floats over the story as effortlessly as the shells on the water.
No doubt the true story is an uplifting and extraordinary one, but it’s a shame it was given such an ordinary film treatment. The Boys In The Boat certainly won’t inspire any future rowers.
The Boys In The Boat glides into theatres on December 25.