Boat Boys review: George Clooney’s World War II sports drama aims high, lands low – LSB

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It’s been a bad week for aquatic cinema between DC’s mid-bye Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom and the George Clooney-directed period drama The boys in the boat. The two have little in common in terms of subject matter and style, but are plagued by the same sense of dark involvement.

Clooney’s Olympic drama follows the young men of the University of Washington rowing crew as they learn to row their way to victory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but never fully takes an interest in the characters or their physiques. Few movies outside of pop star biopics seem so distinctly created in a lab, with obstacles seen as checklists around which to structure the bare bones of a script rather than a human drama to engage with and ultimately we overcome it.

What is The boys in the boat regarding?

Calum Turner and Hadley Robinson enter "The boys in the band."

Credit: Laurie Sparham / MGM

Set in the throes of the Great Depression, The boys in the boat — adapted by screenwriter Mark L. Smith from Daniel James Brown’s book of the same name — follows real-life boy and Olympic rower Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) in his pre-boat days as he attends university lectures while trying to get a odd job bridging the two the end. When he hears about the opportunity to row for pay, he signs up for a grueling tryout and ends up being selected for his college’s underfunded junior varsity team under the stern and stoic coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton).

What starts as a job ends up being a deep desire for Rantz, or so he claims when the inevitability of being cut from the team eventually arises. However, this plays less as an emotional obstacle and more as a prestige picture dictate, given how little interest or commitment the film manages to extract from Rantz, on this and all other issues. For example, in the requisite romantic subplot, a woman he knew in elementary school, Joyce (Hadley Robinson), practically throws herself at him. He doesn’t reciprocate, but what should read as callous or oblivious comes across simply as a lack of commitment, passion or perspective, as if Joyce were in love with a mannequin.


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Turner is clearly talented, as he has been featured in many other projects, such as the neo-Nazi horror-thriller Green room and the 2020 Jane Austen adaptation Emma. But under Clooney’s direction, he ends up presenting a lackluster performance of blank stares. Consequently, Rantz ends up being the worst possible character for this type of story, where the success of individuals helps form a team of eight into a collective and moves the plot towards the Olympics in Germany.

What the team lacks in equipment, Ulbrickson makes up for in raw faith and tough love, pushing his students to exhaustion in the name of success. When the question of money (or lack thereof) puts their trip to Berlin in jeopardy, he even leads a fundraising campaign to get them across the finish line. However, this is also something the film cuts short and largely skips over, despite numerous attempts at framing The boys in the boat as a story of dreams and hard work to overcome rampant poverty.

At least Edgerton manages to muster some passion for the subject. That’s more than can be said for Clooney’s filmmaking, which takes a movie about a grueling physical process and gives it all the flavor and nutritional value of processed meat.

George Clooney invents another World War II story.

Thomas Elms, Tom Vary, Bruce Herbelin-Earl, Callum Turner, Luke Slattery and Will Coban in "The boys in the boat."

Credit: Laurie Sparham / MGM

For a perfect companion to The boys in the boatlook no further than Monuments Men, his 2014 period drama whose premise and central issues dovetail perfectly with his latest. in Monuments Men, a high-caliber cast comes together to rescue stolen art and culture from the clutches of the Nazis, but the film itself has little cultural perspective beyond a fleeting fascination with the idea of ​​reverse art theft. This is despite the fact that the central battalion of the film is made up of art historians and curators.

Similarly, The boys in the boat is a film about athletes and is filled with plenty of rowing scenes, but its concept of rowing itself is dull and disjointed. The motion of rowing may seem repetitive and mechanical, but presenting it as such represents a failure of cinematic imagination, as the scenes in which the action takes place are usually about competition, intensity and adversity. It’s still a racing film, but it lacks the visceral feel of one.

It’s also ostensibly a World War II movie, even though it takes place a year before the Pacific War and five years before Pearl Harbor. His final act takes place against the backdrop of Nazi flags, as the Berlin Olympics were presided over by the Führer himself. Yet the looming anti-Semitism of the era was not distinguished by mood or tone. The Nazi swastika means nothing to the film’s white characters, and it means nothing to the camera either. It is presented incidentally, not with a sense of omen or danger – let alone any hint that Hitler used these games as a propaganda tool, excluding the Jewish athletes.

To point out the era’s white supremacy, the film invokes the name and image of black runner Jesse Owens (Judah James) and for a few seconds lays out his struggles at home and abroad, albeit in passing. However, this admission ends up being the death knell of the film, as it reveals how little the eponymous boys struggle with compared to him. Worse, the film’s narrative ends up so scattered and brainless that Rantz, despite being a central character for most of it, only appears in the climactic scenes as a background character. Meanwhile, the film pivots instead to an entirely different character, as it were The boys in the boat was his story all along.

It’s a confusing narrative decision, made even more confusing by the popular (and far superior) influences Clooney seems to be drawing from.

The boys in the boat aim high but land low.

A scene from "The boys in the boat."

Credit: Laurie Sparham / MGM

There’s a distinct sentimentality to the film from its opening scene—a fast-paced romp in which an elderly Rantz gazes at modern-day rowers before reflecting on his own life—and composer Alexandre Desplat brings that nostalgia to life with his shimmering score. The film has all the hallmarks of a prestige drama from the 80s or 90s, whether it’s a harrowing war film Saving Private Ryanthe historical sports epic Chariots of fireor the coming-of-age drama Dead Poets Society.

Yet it lacks the sense of aspiration and camaraderie that made those films work. It never really feels lived in, despite being a complex design. Poverty is performed gruntingly, but no one seems desperate or malnourished. Shoes with holes appear repeatedly – most notably when Ulbrickson comes across his team’s shoes in their dressing room and realizes how poor they are – but they are treated, processed and inspected as squeaky-clean props, not dirty ones. , ragged clothes. There is no disgust, discomfort, or ignorance for Ulbrickson to overcome, and no sense of self-pity for his boys to embody.

It’s a film that looks glossy on pause, but feels fake when played in full, resulting in a calloused, artificial feel for a good directorial effort in which little is learned or overcome. He doesn’t have a look, or at least one that the camera can’t extract from his tense, medium-close-up portraits that go on too long without the characters reacting to anything in particular. It’s completely empty, and given the importance of its subjects and the setting – a team of working-class underdogs setting boogie records and competing in a dangerous time and place in history – it becomes insulting in the process.

How to watch: The boys in the boat hits theaters December 25.

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