On the run-up to the 1936 Olympics, rowing coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) of the University of Washington has two teams he can select one from - one is the well-bred, patrician team and the alternate is the scholarship, working-class team led by Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), an engineering student whose family effectively abandoned him during the Great Depression. Through perseverance and tenacity, Joe fights his way through the social stigma of his times and makes his way into the history books...
'The Boys In The Boat' is a decidedly old-fashioned movie, for better or worse. It's exactly the kind of movie a journeyman directed would have cranked out in the mid-eighties, along the veins of 'Hoosiers' with Gene Hackman, 'Rudy' or 'The Natural' with Robert Redford. The only issue is 'The Boys In The Boat' isn't as nearly as good or as memorable as any of them. It's not necessarily because rowing is considered in the US to be a sport of wealth. The story goes to great lengths to underline the fact that the team we're supposed to root for are drawn from scholarship students who have neither the means nor the connections to rely on.
Instead, it's that George Clooney's direction for 'The Boys In The Boat' feels conventional and rudimentary. There is rarely any sense of tension or excitement when you're watching them train for the races, or the races themselves which are very much the focus of the movie. There's clearly a lot of rich material here, what with the rigid social hierarchy of the thirties brushing up against the burgeoning Nazis and the Olympics, to say nothing of the hangover of the Great Depression and how Callum Turner's character was directly impacted by it. Ultimately, there's no sense of inspiration from it, just a straightforward and narrow approach to the story that feels far too smooth and slick for it to have any kind of lasting impact.
Clooney has assembled a varied and able cast. Joel Edgerton is by the far best thing here, as he's now ageing into the roles he probably should have been playing all along - gruff elders with no time to hold anyone's hands and angrily delivering pep talks from the pier while the camera crowns him in the early morning sunlight. Callum Turner, meanwhile, is supposed to carry the movie and the emotional journey of all involved, but barely seems able to communicate anything other than a couple of clipped lines of dialogue and lots of heaving in the boat. After that, the rest of the cast sort of melds into the scenery, even with a misguided romantic subplot with Callum Turner's character.
All in all, 'The Boys In The Boat' is a movie that tries to catch up the legacy of better movies of its kind. Where those have an effortless grace and sincerity, 'The Boys In The Boat' looks and feels like it's trying very hard to affect those qualities and never quite getting them. The end result is something that's well-meaning and passable, but never anything more than forgettable.