Director George Clooney both begins and ends “The Boys in the Boat ” on a sun-dappled lake. It’s a seductive sight, calm and soothing, and aptly reflects the ethos of a film that often feels like one has walked into an oil painting: well-crafted, lovely to look at, and rather old-fashioned.
Telling the true-life story of the University of Washington rowing team, a scrappy group that — incredibly — reached the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Clooney has gone for stirring and a bit stodgy, pleasing and a bit predictable. Given the craft involved, this is hardly a fatal flaw. And yet, when Joel Edgerton’s coach character surveys his team at one point and remarks, “We need an edge, Tom,” we think: Ah, yes. A little edge here would be nice.
In place of edge, we do get moments of beauty, especially when the boys get into those boats. Rowing is, though, the last thing on the mind of Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a homeless college student, when we first meet him.
We’re in 1936 Seattle, deep into the Great Depression. Rantz is trying to learn engineering, but can barely afford to stay afloat, and we’re not talking, for now, about a body of water. Abandoned by his father at 14, he can’t even afford to eat lunch at the university cafeteria, slipping out to a soup kitchen. At the bursar’s office, they give him two weeks to pay his bill.
But like every substantial obstacle in this film, this one is quickly overcome: Joe and his friend are accepted. This delights the one other person in Joe’s life: Joyce (a sweet and heartfelt Hadley Robinson), who sits behind him in class, nudges him when he’s about to fall asleep, and starts to fall in love with him. This is not too hard — the blond and athletic Joe is, as his friend says of Joyce earlier, “a looker” — though not much of a talker.
But there’s hardly time for chitchat anyway. Days are filled with practice, practice, practice. Their rowing coach, Al Ulbrickson, is also a man of few words, let alone praise, and even fewer smiles, but Edgerton imbues him with a gruffness that doesn’t mask the heart underneath (yes, a common convention in sports dramas). Too often, though, the screenplay by Mark L. Smith (based on the nonfiction book by Daniel James Brown) leaves him with little to do but raise his binoculars momentously, or utter lines like: “We’re going to go in there and do it until we get it right!”
The junior varsity Huskies are the quintessential underdogs in every way. And so nobody expects much when they get to their first big test, against Cal Berkeley. “Let’s show them what’s in this boat!” says the energetic coxswain, Bobby (Luke Slattery), whose job is to steer the boat, coordinate the rowers and, at key moments, urge them to greatness.
We’re guided along by radio commentary: “Washington is struggling to keep pace. Washington is surging! Washington is going to do it!” We know the team will defy expectations and pass each big test, because if they didn’t, their story would end, but Clooney and team make it pretty exciting just the same. The crowd scenes, with fans in period garb in hues of brown, are lovely.
Next up is a much more difficult test, along the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, New York, where the winner will claim the right to compete in the Olympics. Ulbrickson makes the debated call to send these boys — the university’s junior boat — to the event. Before they leave, however, Joe’s focus is disrupted by a disturbing meetup with a figure from his past.
But not much is made of this meeting, and though Joe gets briefly exiled from the team — he dared to tell his coach, “I don’t care” — he is soon standing tall again, after a heart-to-heart with an older, wiser figure (Peter Guinness) who gives just the pep talk he needs. Right in time for an epic showdown presented as something of a class struggle — “old money versus no money at all,” announces the colorful radio announcer.
There is one more setback before this team of underdogs can make it to Berlin, and its resolution is one of the more moving moments in the script. And then, finally, they arrive in Nazi Germany, to the swastikas and the banners and patriotic crowds urging on the German team, with Adolf Hitler in the stands.
We’ll avoid the spoiler, but suffice it to say that the finale does pretty much what it needs to. No, there is not much “edge” here, but Clooney and team prove that sometimes, slow and steady — or should we say, pretty and pleasing — can still win some races.