Based on Daniel James Brown’s 2013 nonfiction book about a scrappy team of underdog rowers from the University of Washington who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the eight-man crew event, “The Boys in the Boat” is a handsome, stirring, yet untaxing dose of underdog-sports uplift. Directed by George Clooney from a screenplay by Mark L. Smith (who also wrote Clooney’s “The Midnight Sky”) and shot in tones of burnished gold and deep, watery blue by “Midnight Sky” cinematographer Martin Ruhe, the Great Depression-set docudrama comes out in the middle of awards season but is a little too pat and familiar to land with much of a splash.
The theme of the film is teamwork and the submerging of the self. It’s more about the boat than the boys in it, in other words, at least if you believe the rhapsodic screenplay, which refers to rowing as “more poetry than sport.” But the film does focus on one athlete in particular: Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), who helps guide the racing shell (and the film) across the finish line, after being introduced to us as a homeless student, sleeping in a car and with holes in his shoes, who only joins the team because it comes with a bed and a paycheck.
The poetry is sometimes lovely, as when Joe is having a crisis of confidence — manifested by his being out of sync with his teammates — and is replaced in the boat by his no-guff coach, Al Ulbrickson (nicely played by Joel Edgerton). In a pivotal scene during his exile, Joe visits George Pocock (Peter Guinness), an acclaimed designer and builder of racing shells at the school, who waxes lyrical/metaphysical to Joe as they, and Ruhe’s camera, gaze in rapturous wonder at what ordinary mortals might mistake for a boat. When all eight men are working in harmony, George tells Joe, they become inseparable from the racing shell: Their “sweat and pain bleed into the grain as they become one magical thing that moves across the water like it was born to be nowhere else.”
That’s a nice line, if somewhat “Karate Kid”-like in its mysticism. (Alternate translation: There is no “I” in “team.”)
There’s isn’t much else to complain about. The acting is solid, particularly by Hadley Robinson as Joe’s love interest, Joyce, and Luke Slattery as Bobby Moch, who as the team’s coxswain doesn’t lift an oar but is in charge of navigation and steering. He’s another kind of coach, if you will, more integral to the team’s success than it might appear.
Clooney plays that role here, coaxing performances from his cast that belie the overly familiar material, and crafting a narrative that manages to evoke more suspense than it has any right to, even for those who already know the outcome.
It’s Oscar season, and “The Boys in the Boat” is a good-looking, engrossing, true tale, superficially much like the 1981 best-picture winner “Chariots of Fire,” but without that Olympic drama’s themes of antisemitism and faith. If “The Boys in the Boat” is missing something, it’s substance. And as Al lectures his rowers, however prettily you perform, “they don’t give gold metals for style.”
PG-13. Dec. 25 at area theaters. Contains strong language and smoking. 124 minutes.