Of all the sports out there, few are perhaps as un-cinematic as rowing; no contemporary film has come close to evoking the thrill of the water like the handful of scenes in The Social Network. While George Clooney's The Boys in the Boat is a far cry from the razor-sharp edge of Fincher's racing scenes, it's still an immensely watchable attempt at bringing rowing to the screen.
Retelling the true story of the gutsy working class rowing team of the University of Washington in Depression-era America, Clooney's narrative doesn't ever colour too far out the lines of the sports film formula but revels in its classic feel. Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) has been fending for himself since he was 14 and, when he falls behind on tuition fees, he tries out for the campus' rowing team on the promise of a job and a room should he be successful. For the other fifty boys there, that's the team's only appeal. But, on the water, the group become much more and they're soon outpacing their competitors for a place in the upcoming Olympics.
Clooney's direction is steeped in nostalgia; not only in the production design and the gold-tinted cinematography, which does a good job of capturing the 1930s era, but in the whole structure of the film with the rousing underdog story and Alexandre Desplat's old-timey orchestral score all recalling classic sports films of old (Field of Dreams; The Karate Kid et al). Even the cliches feel somewhat purposeful, giving the film a sense of familiarity. That being said, it's still treading well-worn material and it does so in such an unshowy way that it's hard to get too excited about what's going on.
The film's characters are given the bare minimum in terms of characterisation. A subplot involving Rantz's absent father is quickly swept under the rug while taciturn coach Al (Joel Edgerton) does very little other than grunt and mumble. There's a romance between Rantz and his childhood crush Joyce (Hadley Robinson) but the pair lack any veritable chemistry. The racing scenes, however, are tightly helmed and sharp editing makes them involving and exciting to watch. The film is at its strongest on the water, when the focus is on the crew dynamic of this underdog team rather than any particular member of it.
The Boys in the Boat is classic in structure and classic in its disposability. It works best as throwaway, B-rate Sunday afternoon fare that you'd stumble upon on TV on a Summers day. The beats are predictable; the style is unimpressive; it lacks any real depth or bite but it's a reliable, accomplished story of overcoming adversity nonetheless with some dynamic, thrilling racing scenes. It's a charming, if a little slight, watch. But it's also a reminder of the kind of unburdened, simple, rootin' and tootin' prestige dramas that Hollywood once mustered up. And how sorely they've been missed.
The Boys in the Boat releases in UK cinemas from January 12th, 2024.