Review: George Clooney Plumbs Nostalgia for The Boys in the Boat, a Gauzy Retelling of a Historic Moment

George Clooney the filmmaker seems nostalgic for a time period he never actually lived in—with works like Good Night, and Good Luck; Leatherheads; The Monuments Men; and now his latest, The Boys in the Boat. He’s tackling stories and telling them faithfully (I assume), just not like someone fondly remembering a time because they existed then. The new film is set in 1936 at the University of Washington, where Joe Rantz (Callum Turner, a British-born actor known mostly for his role in the last two Fantastic Beasts movies) is barely scraping by financially. As the country is still coming out of the Great Depression, Joe seems smart enough to pass his classes but is too broke to pay the tuition, so he tries out for the school’s junior rowing team only because getting on the team is a paying gig (it turns out many of the young men on the team are in a similar predicament). Joe has a knack for rowing, and the team, led by Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), starts to win races.

The film has a couple peripheral stories to distract us from the far more interesting training and racing sequences, but the junior team gets so good that Ulbrickson decides to push them as the contenders in the 1936 Olympics instead of the more senior squad, a decision that does not sit well with the team’s primary financial donors. The women in The Boys in the Boat, perhaps not surprisingly, do not fare well in screen time. Courtney Henggeler plays the coach’s wife, Hazel, who certainly supports her husband’s choices but doesn’t get much character development beyond that. And somehow Joe finds the time and money for a girlfriend, Joyce (Hadley Robinson), who dotes on him and cheers at his matches, but adds little to the story, which is based on the best-selling, nonfiction novel by Daniel James Brown (and adapted by The Revenant screenwriter Mark L. Smith).

Very few of the crew team members stand out in Clooney’s telling, with the exception of coxswain Bobby Moch (Luke Slattery), who has enough zing in his portrayal to garner some attention. There’s also a mentor-mentee relationship going on between Joe and assistant coach George Pocock (Peter Guinness), who actually builds the team’s boats and has Joe help with the final coats of varnish as a way to get him to bond with the sport. There really isn’t much about the sport of rowing that is exciting outside of the races, but Clooney does his best to convince us otherwise.

The only time the film really comes to life is when they finally make it to the Berlin Olympics. Going into The Boys in the Boat, I didn’t know where the story was going, so I had no idea that the team would come face to face with Hitler and his perfect Aryan athletes. There’s a particularly good moment when some of the team meets legendary runner Jesse Owens (Jyuddah Jaymes), who makes it clear he has more to prove to people back home than any Germans he might be running against. I almost wish the whole movie had been about these clearly volatile Olympics and all of the moving pieces that got the rowing team there as well as everyone else.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the performances or Clooney’s directing of The Boys in the Boat, but the entire affair comes across as translucent and lacking any substance. There’s a lot of forced nobility projected onto the rowers and the coaches, but they all really seem like people just trying to get by. And there is a certain nobility in that, but I don’t need swelling music and gauze on the lens to explain that to me. I actually really enjoyed what Turner and Edgerton bring to the production; they seem more aware of the assignment than the filmmaker, who seems more interested in legends than history.

The film opens in theaters on Monday, December 25.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.