There’s nothing wrong with a movie being nice, but George Clooney‘s old-fashioned drama The Boys in the Boat is a little too sweet and tropey for its own good. Based on Daniel James Brown‘s best-selling nonfiction novel of the same name, the 1930s set tale feels as if it’s been made in that era through an emotionally manipulative score (thank you Alexandre Desplat) and the lush cinematography from Martin Ruhe, both summoning the feeling of a time that felt more distinctively black and white regarding people’s individual approaches.
As a director, Clooney has a mixed resume, and Boys… fails to further the keen eye he seemed to flex more frequently in the earlier throws of his filmmaking; recent outings such as The Tender Bar (2021) and 2017’s bizarre Suburbicon a far cry from his directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) or such political delights as Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) or The Ides of March (2011). As written by Mark L. Smith (who has an eclectic resume, ranging from the snuff film thriller Vacancy, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, and this year’s Twister follow-on, Twisters), Boys… doesn’t have much for Clooney to work with, so his keen eye for an old-fashioned aesthetic makes sense given the slush Smith presents; a real shame considering the depths of Brown’s book.
Here, if your name isn’t Joe Rantz, the film doesn’t entirely care about you. As Rantz, Callum Turner does a fine job, and given that the movie predominantly rides on his shoulders, it certainly helps us as viewers manage any type of emotional investment in his plight as a working class student, who successfully joins the University of Washington’s rowing team and guides them to representing the United States at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Rantz was essentially abandoned as a youngster and has had to fend for himself ever since, and whilst the film clues us in a little on such struggles, the fact that he’s getting by enough to afford University of Washington’s tuition means he isn’t exactly the everyman we can relate to; Turner’s model-good looks also make it difficult to evoke sympathy.
But that’s not Turner’s fault, he just isn’t helped by the writing. The mundanities of rowing were never Brown’s M.O. in his book, rather the responsibilities of the crew were. The film begs to differ on this, and though the other rowers get occasional focus, the act of rowing itself is what Clooney highlights, and, really, there’s only so many ways rowing can look exciting – and this film fails to show us how. Joel Edgerton as their rowing coach, Al Ubrickson, states that rowing is “more poetry than sport”, and it would appear that line is taken far more seriously than it should, with the rowing sequences bathed in a self-importance that’s more insufferable than inspiring.
Though the hard work of the crew can’t be denied, Boys… submits to a more triumphant mentality regarding their trajectory. The odds working against them is what makes their story so inspiring, especially considering its set during the Depression too, but the story is structured in such a way that it’s overly saturating them in ascendancy that their actual achievements feel shortchanged.
The Boys in the Boat is undeniably attractive to watch, and it fills the undemanding, surface-level-inspiring quota with an effortlessness that I’m sure easily pleased audiences will flock to. But there’s a larger, more inspiring story to be told through Brown’s words, and Clooney, sadly, skipped many a page.
TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Boys in the Boat is now screening in Australian theatres.