While watching The Boys in the Boat, I couldn't help but be struck with a thought regarding the career of the film's director, George Clooney. Clooney is a man who needs no introduction, as he is one of the last true movie stars of his generation. Despite being best known as an actor, he has focused more on directing, becoming a bit of a journeyman over time. His directorial breakthrough, 2005's Good Night, and Good Luck was met with critical acclaim, but he has struggled to come anywhere close to that level of success with the remainder of his efforts. I have always appreciated that Clooney has been willing to dip his toe into a variety of genres, from screwball comedy to political thriller to sci-fi and so on. As I reflected on his career and the trajectory of his directorial career, I couldn't help but compare him to Robert Redford. Both are classically handsome and beloved leading men who pivoted to directing near the height of their respective careers, and both made a splash with their debuts before a string of hits and misses. Redford arguably has had the most successful run as a filmmaker, but Clooney's is a more diverse body of work. Perhaps its the aquatic setting of The Boys in the Boat that led me to this conclusion, as I couldn't help but think of Redford's A River Runs Through It at certain points. These movies are rather different in terms of content, but both have a similar flair to them that feels guaranteed to click with audiences. The Boys in the Boat sees George Clooney utilizing a tried-and-true formula and making his most Redford-esque film yet. It ends up being perhaps the best choice Clooney could have made, as the film ends up being one of his better directorial works, and is a bonafide crowdpleaser that has the potential to hit big with audiences.
In the midst of the Great Depression, a group of young men try out for a spot on the University of Washington rowing team. Those that make the cut soon find that rowing is a tough sport, and requires teamwork, strength, and dedication. Under the guidance of their coaches, they rise in the ranks and eventually find themselves representing the United States in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The film follows the lives of some of the team members, and shows how a group of working class young men ended up as Olympic athletes.
The Boys in the Boat uses the same formula most sports movies do, which helps and hurts it. It hurts it in that it hits a lot of predictable beats and tropes that audiences have become accustomed to, but helps it have a defined structure that holds it together. Most of the interesting aspects of the film come from the scenes that are more character-focused and the fact that this film is about rowing, a sport that hasn't been depicted on film all that much. The formulaic nature of the film helps give signposts for audience members who may get a bit lost in the details of rowing or the lives of the characters, but it also takes away any tension it tries to build. It is rather clear where the film is going the entire time, but it at least has the novelty of rowing and a decent ensemble to fall back on.
While on the topic of the ensemble, the film assembles a group of up and coming actors that turn in some solid work. I really like the moments that focus specifically on them, as they give us some insight on who the young men on the team were. These scenes reminded me a little of Dead Poets Society, as they have a similar coming of age feel to them. I just wish that it would have leaned into this angle a little more, as we leave the film knowing very little about any of the characters. We spend a fair amount of time with Joe Rantz, the de facto protagonist of the film, but outside of him, there's not much to be said about the other team members outside of some surface level information. Despite not getting to know the characters on an individual level, we do get to see them work as a team, which plays into the overall idea of rowing and the importance of teamwork. I just wish that there was a little more depth to the characters in general, as it comes close to delivering on it, but falls just a little short.
That said, the actors that play the members of the rowing team are quite good, and make the best of what they are given. Callum Turner definitely has the most to work with as Joe Rantz, and his arc is certainly the most emotionally resonant of the film. Turner portrays the hardened, steely exterior of the character rather well, and definitely has the most well-rounded characterization of the ensemble. Some of the other standouts include Jack Mulhern, who plays one of the quieter members of the team, and Luke Slattery, who plays the team's coxswain. Mulhern is more reserved, but the little moments of personality we get from his portrayal of Don Hume are quite great, and play off his more stonefaced demeanor quite well. Slattery, on the other hand, is the most outspoken member of the team, and provides much of the comedic relief in the film. As Bobby Moch, he is quite charismatic and not afraid to speak his mind, and he pops the most out of the entire supporting cast. He is certainly the most memorable of the team, and certainly my favorite performance of the whole film.
I also must give credit to Joel Edgerton, who plays the team's coach, Al Ulbrickson. Edgerton is restrained, yet has an intense energy about him all throughout the film. It's a performance that could be mistaken for him phoning it in, and while I've definitely seen better from him, he is quite good here. The scenes that show him coaching are perhaps his strongest, but he does have a few small moments scattered throughout the film that I appreciated. Peter Guinness is also quite good as the team's boatbuilder, who acts as a mentor to Joe Rantz. Guinness has the gravitas that this film so desperately needs, and the film knows just when to deploy it. The scenes between him and Turner are some of the best of the film, and add some nice warmth to it.
The actual rowing scenes are shot rather well by cinematographer Martin Ruhe, who utilizes overhead shots and close-ups quite well. Some shots in the rest of the film come off a bit polished, but it is generally rather good work from him. The score from Alexandre Desplat is also solid, with him putting his own spin on an inspirational sports score. Between this and Nyad, Desplat is running the table on scores for aquatic themed sports films, and puts in some reliably strong work here. It does feel a tad derivative here and there, but it certainly doesn't disappoint.
As for George Clooney's direction, there isn't much that he does to put a distinct touch on the film, but that might be for the best. Despite his journeyman approach, he at least makes sure the film holds together well, and makes sure the film checks all the boxes that most inspirational sports dramas do. Given that Clooney has had a few misses as of late, I can understand him wanting to be a little more by the book to guarantee a hit. But despite him not really taking many risks, this film shows that Clooney is a good fit for more sentimental fare, as he pulls off the emotional moments quite well, and is able to make the more uplifting aspects feel rather genuine. I've never been a big fan of Clooney as a director, but this is definitely one of his better efforts, even if he plays it safe.
The Boys in the Boat might not fully change my mind about George Clooney as a director, but it is at least a step up from his past few films. I wouldn't say that this film is anything fantastic, but it is quite enjoyable, and perfect if you're looking for a good old-fashioned feel-good movie. I wish it would have gone a bit deeper in terms of the characters at its core, but I do appreciate that it embraces its sentimentality, and leans into the inspirational sports movie angle. It's a definite crowdpleaser through and through, and is definitely one of Clooney's better directorial efforts.