“Everyone tires and they just keep getting stronger.”
George Clooney’s ambitions as a director from project to project never cease to astound. Even if the films themselves don’t work (which is sadly largely the case), they’re interesting to watch nonetheless thanks to the filmmaker’s pull towards unconventional projects and his interpretation of them. As a director, Clooney is not afraid of silence, politics, or delving headfirst into a subject matter. This is true regardless of whether or not the subject fits the image of the kind of story the industry expects him to tell. The consequence of his fearlessness has resulted in one visually inspired and capably-made dud after another, from the misguided Suburbicon to the frozen slog that was The Midnight Sky. It’s a shame to report that The Boys in the Boat, his latest offering isn’t much better than those misfires. What’s worse, it’s hard to even care that much anymore.
In The Boys in the Boat, Clooney directs the true story of the eight crew members from Washington State’s rowing team. Through the perspective of rower Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) and head coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), the movie follows the team from their initial start as underdogs to representing America in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
If this was the year 2000, The Boys in the Boat would most definitely be a contender for the kinds of accolades it’s so clearly hoping to get. But filmmaking is in a different place today and the standards that came before just don’t cut it anymore. Clooney explores the standard tropes that accompany a story like this and does them well, but he doesn’t add anything in terms of his stamp to help make The Boys in the Boat feel like his movie. It’s the tropes that hamper whatever ambitions Clooney had with the film, of which there are plenty. Every point of conflict that threatens to thwart the team from competing is easily resolved, and the two key female characters are pure cardboard. The script should have either given them something interesting to do or left them out. As it stands, both female characters struggle to make an impression in a story neither belongs in.
The irony of The Boys in the Boat is that it’s a remarkable and inspiring story that’s being told in such an uninspiring way. You would think a sports story centered on someone who had no initial motivation for the sport becoming consumed by it would automatically lend itself to a thrilling movie experience. But every move and shot Clooney chooses is standard and unspectacular, at times making the film feel like it could have been found on cable back in the days of prestige made-for-TV movies. The surprising exception to this are the rowing sequences, which are legitimately invigorating. It’s here where Clooney excels by managing to place us right in the same boat as the team and has us invest ourselves in the race. But Clooney does himself no favors by only including two such thrilling sequences before going back to a collection of tired story beats. I do feel that there’s still an audience out there for this kind of movie, one that will lap up every beat and cue they’ve seen before and are happy to see again. But I’m not sure even they would want to give this a shot.
It’s great to see Turner in a leading role after standing out in supporting turns for so long. Even if the script doesn’t allow him much room to be anything other than sullen and withdrawn for most of his scenes, there’s enough of a presence in the actor that says he believes in his character. Edgerton, meanwhile, does some of his best work in some time by not playing into Al’s gruffness, choosing instead to focus on his pragmatism and belief in his team that remains unwavering. As for everyone else, despite being photographed well and genuinely acting as if they belong in the world Clooney is bringing to life, no other member of the cast can give life to their assigned stereotypes; I mean, characters.
Will The Boys in the Boat connect? It’s certainly possible. Despite what I’ve said, the film is a solid one, if only just. But solid is not good enough this time of the year. I’m starting to wonder if it’s that “solid” quality that’s become the norm for Clooney’s movies. 2008’s Leatherheads, 2011’s The Ides and March, and 2021’s The Tender Bar are all “solid” films. They tick every box and feature moments that do right by the characters and the audience, a feat that’s not always easy to achieve. But it’s hard to praise these films as anything more. The Boys in the Boat is a continuation of this type of moviemaking; it is an engaging story that’s been brought to the screen with a level of skill and care that has now become Clooney’s standard. It’s certainly not the best Clooney has done in the past, but it’s hard not to ask the question: Is it the best he can do now?