At first it seemed like a fluke or flaw that George Clooney’s directorial outings felt…outdated? From Good Night and Good Luck to The Tender Bar, every film to date feels drawn directly from a bygone era of cinema – usually the type of film that populated multiplexes in the 90s. But so many films in, perhaps that’s exactly what the Oscar-winner is going for: that quiet, simple storytelling that would have made the big bucks back when he was emerging as an A-lister. And truth be told, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For while his newest film, The Boys in the Boat, doesn’t make many waves, it does serve as a heartwarmingly familiar story about teamwork and triumph.
Based on a true story, The Boys in the Boat follows the Washington Huskies JV crew team. Coached by Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), the team was formed primarily as a means of training the varsity squad. Consisting of eight working-class rowers looking to earn some extra cash and a recently demoted coxswain, the team overcomes hard work and adversity through their drive and determination. Soon, they not only shock the world by defeating the elite Ivy-league programs, but also earned a chance to take on the Germans at the 1936 Olympics. The film primarily focuses on Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a young student trying to pay his way through school after being abandoned by his father and losing his mother.
The greatest hurdle The Boys in the Boat faces is its script. Mark L. Smith’s filmography – outside of a co-writing credit on the mostly dialogueless The Revenant – consists of a series of clunkers. And while the story itself is remarkable enough to avoid complete disaster, it’s clear that Smith is the film’s greatest detriment. All he knows is a series of sports movie clichés stuck together with chewing gum.
It’s hard not to roll your eyes within the first five minutes when the film begins cribbing the Saving Private Ryan flashback device. Outside of the two lead characters – Rantz and Ulbrickson – most of the crew is left unexplored and undefined, destroying any chance of building chemistry. Hell, Smith’s script is so generic, even the moments that are known to be real – Rantz’s tragic backstory, his romance with a childhood friend, the closeness of the races, etc. – all feel more like screenwriting tropes than real, lived-in moments.
Yet despite Smith’s laziness as a writer, The Boys in the Boat remains an impossible film to hate. Much of that is due to the plot, which is just true enough and just emotional enough to play on the hearts of most viewers (who doesn’t love triumphant athletes beating Nazis?). But a great deal of credit must also be paid to Clooney’s quiet, steady hand as a director. Clooney has an eye for staging sturdy little throwbacks to a bygone era of filmmaking. There are no flashy gimmicks, no excessively big choices – he just lets the story (not the script) do the work).
This technique shines in the quieter moments, such as the boys’ first day in class after a strenuous workout – one of the most accurate sports scenes I’ve witnessed. And it especially works bringing the racing scenes to life, with one exception in the final race, when the camerawork inexplicably mirrors The Rocky Horror Picture Show. When coupled with Alexandre Desplat’s 90s-esque classical score, it makes for a riveting, uplifting movie that should allow you to overlook its flaws.
In terms of the performances, neither the script nor the story itself allow for grandiose moments of stagy acting, but the performers all do their job admirably. Both Turner and Egerton bring a stoic, “stiff-upper-lip” level of heroics to their characters, although it’s hard not to be disappointed that an actor as great as Egerton feels so sidelined here. The rest of the crew is often interchangeable, but both Jack Mulhern as Don Hume and Luke Slattery as cocky coxswain Bobby Moch get a chance to shine. And while Smith continues to struggle writing female characters, Hadley Robinson at least brings energy to Joe’s love interest that contrasts the sea of quiet heroes.
The Boys in the Boat is a solid film in its quiet simplicity. In spite of a sea of clichés and its struggling script, Clooney has crafted a film that’s impossible to dislike. It hits the beats it needs to, as hard as it needs to, and when it needs to. You’ll feel what you’re supposed to feel, smile when you’re supposed to smile, and cheer when you’re supposed to cheer. Is it as good as the book? Of course not? Does it rock the boat? No, and I apologize for the pun. But it serves its purpose, and does what needs to be done. And sometimes, that’s all you can ask for.
The Boys In The Boat is now playing exclusively in theaters; it will be on Amazon Prime sometime in the near future