Any type of success in sports involves a great deal of effort and countless hours of practice and preparation. Some athletes are gifted with both extraordinary means and abilities, which allow them to devote themselves fully to a sport without putting everything on the line. For others, the chance at a scholarship or a salary is what pushes them into something they might otherwise never have considered. George Clooney’s The Boys in the Boat spotlights the latter, focused on one member of the University of Washington rowing team in 1936 who put everything he had into becoming the best to achieve a better life.
The Boys in the Boat opens on Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), who arrives at the University of Washington desperately seeking work. An opportunity quickly emerges: to join the ultra-competitive rowing team, where hundreds of young men will try out for a mere eight slots. The tough Coach Al Ubrickson (Joel Edgerton) is determined to have the team make a good showing, and their sights are soon set on the audacious goal of getting to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and bringing glory to the great state of Washington and its university athletics program.
This film is based on Daniel James Brown’s 2013 novel The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Its setup and place in history is reminiscent of Clooney’s earlier film The Monuments Men, another war-adjacent piece that looks at a time of unrest but not the typical focus that has made it most prominently into history books. The sight of Hitler appearing and watching closely as the team competes in Berlin is indeed chilling, but this story is much more about overcoming adversity at home than fighting the good fight against fascism on the eve of world war.
While Clooney’s breakthrough directorial feature, Good Night, and Good Luck., earned six Oscar nominations, including two for Clooney himself, he’s since gone on a journey with the genres and styles of his projects. The Ides of March was a political thriller, and Leatherheads and Suburbicon took lighter approaches to seemingly serious subjects. He tried sci-fi with The Midnight Sky, and embraced family drama with The Tender Bar. For his newest film, Clooney returns to the schmaltzy nature of The Monuments Men, presenting a spiritual sequel of sorts that involves a good deal of melodrama in its portrait of its protagonists’ fight to succeed in their given field.
That straightforward, unspectacular presentation won’t make The Boys in the Boat into Oscar bait, but it should impress sports fans. Its strongest asset is when the stakes are high and each member of the team is rowing their heart out, desperate to pass the boats, first of another American university and then another country, with the coxswain barking rapid-fire instructions. There’s a sense of wonder and excitement manufactured from the effective combination of gorgeous aerial shots from Cinematographer Martin Ruhe and swelling orchestral music from Composer Alexandre Desplat. In those moments on the water, this film achieves what it wants to and will have audiences temporarily on the edges of their seats, if just to get a better look at the action.
Those technical enhancements pair with a fairly predictable plot, and there’s little to elevate this very standard and expected story. Audiences who regularly attend and watch sporting events will find a familiar pace and sense of community here, but average movie lovers – and Oscar voters – likely won’t find much to distinguish this from similar films in the genre.
What doesn’t work quite as well is the overall arc of the plot and any real sense that they won’t achieve what they strive to do. That’s always a risk with movies based on history, since those most interested in a subject will likely know the outcome going in, but it’s not too hard to guess how things pan out even without any sports knowledge in this case.
Turner is affable and effective enough in the lead role, though those who wish to see a truly fantastic performance from him should check out Season One of The Capture on Peacock. Edgerton is well-cast, as are other members of the ensemble, including Hadley Robinson, who portrays Rantz’s love interest Joyce Simdars. No one here is doing groundbreaking work, but this is a perfectly passable holiday film that should be entertaining enough to moviegoers, even if it couldn’t survive a cutthroat competition like making the University of Washington rowing team.
Awards Potential: Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay
Box Office Potential: $20 million
Overall Score: B-
Studio: Amazon MGM Studios
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Callum Turner, Peter Guinness, Sam Strike, Hadley Robinson, James Wolk, Chris Diamantopoulos
Director: George Clooney
Screenwriter: Mark L. Smith
Producers: Grant Heslov, George Clooney
DP: Martin Ruhe
Production Design: Kalina Ivanov
Costume Design: Jenny Eagan
Editor: Tanya Swerling
Score by: Alexandre Desplat