‘The Boys in the Boat’ Review: George Clooney’s Disarmingly Old-School Rowing Movie Gets It Right

Callum Turner and Joel Edgerton steer the inspiring and occasionally schmaltzy sports drama capably towards its rousing finale

Few old-school movie stars today are as earnestly and disarmingly Hollywood as George Clooney. In that regard, the breezy “The Boys in the Boat,” his latest directorial effort after the laborious and flat “The Tender Bar,” almost feels like an extension of Clooney’s star persona: accessible, handsomely made, a bit schmaltzy but never less than spirited or without something to say.

Harnessing all these qualities, “The Boys in the Boat” is the best kind of easy-to-consume and inoffensive underdog tale, tracing the rousing journey of one penniless young man in his quest to become something more than his financial predicaments have thus far allowed him. And it helps that it’s Clooney that’s steering this ship. In his hands, “The Boys in the Boat” stays its course as a wholesome and forgivably formulaic movie you won’t ever regret seeing on a Sunday afternoon with the whole family.

It also helps that what’s at the center of the film is an untold true story of perseverance that is easy to root for, one that sees the University of Washington’s shabby but hardworking rowing team beat the Nazis in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin despite all the odds stacked against them.

Based on a best-selling book by Daniel James Brown, “The Boys in the Boat” chiefly follows the headstrong Joe Rantz, played by a captivating and reflective Callum Turner who looks like a brawnier version of a young Richard Gere. A college student in the mid 1930s, Joe is hopelessly broke, quietly patching up the soles of his shoes and picking up odds jobs here and there to make ends meet. When he finds that he can no longer afford his tuition, he decides to go out for his school’s crew squad, where only the very best can claim one of its nine coveted spots.

At first, Joe is only after room and board and enough money to cover his school expenses like the rest of his teammates—social class and the snobbery of the well-heeled is a capably navigated through-line in the film that rings truthful. It’s no spoiler to reveal that he soon discovers his natural aptitude for rowing crew, which was apparently the most watched sport of its time.

The beats from there are reassuringly familiar even when they err on the side of too predictable. The customary influential coach duties go to the always great Joel Edgerton, who plays Al Ulbrickson, next to assistant coach Tom Bolles (James Wolk), a clear-eyed duo with their hearts and minds in the right place. There is also a romantic interest of course—Hadley Robinson’s charming Joyce Simdars, who doesn’t have a lot more to do than being a supportive and often cheering girlfriend. But like she did in Scott Cooper’s moody macabre “The Pale Blue Eye” with a small part, Robinson brings her verve to the film, in step with the picture’s old-timey disposition.

Among the most impressive feats Clooney pulls off here is providing the viewer a clear understanding of what makes a strong rowing team. Those (like this critic) who associate the sport mostly with the Winklevii twins of David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” and that film’s stupendously edited race sequences, might just be surprised to have a newfound appreciation of its complexities, where each of the rowers serve an exact, engine-like purpose.

Written by Mark L. Smith, the script economically differentiates the boat’s entire team throughout, establishing each of the boys as individuals first before we can perceive them as a unified block. Elsewhere, lived-in production design and costuming elements (by Kalina Ivanov and Jenny Eagan, respectively) plausibly elevate the movie to something that feels like a prestige period picture of yore across handsomely lit academic corners and era-appropriate movie places where people sometimes packed to watch news footage.

Nothing in the film is perhaps more soundly designed than its pair of central racing sequences that the team wins despite having no powerful connections or even sufficient funds. Fluidly lensed by Martin Ruhe and swiftly edited by Tanya M. Swerling, these segments are both stirring and shamelessly emotional in the way they pull at your heartstrings.

Admittedly, the cheesy shots of Hitler become a little too…well, cheesy, during the final Berlin race. But thanks to the sincerity Clooney conjures up through it all, you might just about overlook that particular gaudiness. After all, his “The Boys in the Boat” isn’t here to become a high-brow reinvention of the sports movie. It’s here to show you a respectably fun, inspiring time and it does just that.

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