George Clooney, you could argue, directs in exactly the way you’d expect from a true Hollywood star. His films are handsomely made, likeable and approachable, yet entirely without risk. He’s largely produced period pieces – save for his 2011 election drama The Ides of March and 2020 environmental sci-fi The Midnight Sky – that frequently engage with political ideas, yet lack the nerve to do so with any real sense of propulsion (and not even with the directness Clooney has shown in his own activism).
There’s a weightlessness, too, to his latest. The Boys in the Boat adapts Daniel James Brown’s 2013 book about the University of Washington men’s rowing team and their journey to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, conducted under the shadow of the Nazi regime. Clooney and his screenwriter, Mark L Smith, tell their story with rousing traditionalism, reinforced by Alexandre Desplat’s idealist score, but little more.
At its core, The Boys in the Boat concerns class politics, with a coach named Al (played by Joel Edgerton, a fascinating actor operating on a low simmer) taking a chance on a less experienced Junior Varsity team made up of working class boys, and against the desires of the academic establishment. Yet the film struggles to rally any concrete idea of what these athletes should mean to us. Supposedly it’s a film about unity, which ends with the clunker of a line, “we were never eight, were were one”, but cares little for the people beyond its perfunctory protagonist, Joe Rantz (Callum Turner, who at least lends the role some gravitas).
We know Joe by his hard luck and his quiet determination, as Clooney diligently recreates Depression-era Seattle. He is a young man, adrift between the skeletons of rusted-out cars and tin-walled shacks – another face in the crowd gathered around a truck, where a man will announce there are no more jobs for that day. He’s enough for us to root for, but it’s a care not extended to his teammates. We know there’s a shy one with a gift for the piano (Jack Mulhern’s Don Hume), and a spirited coxswain, Bobby Moch (Luke Slattery), who’s brought in for a final-hour injection of inspiration. The women – Joe’s former childhood crush, Joyce (Hadley Robinson), and Al’s wife, Hazel (Courtney Henggeler) – seem to be there only to reward sporting genius with sexual availability.
Clooney lavishes attention on his film’s period details: blister-covered hands, megaphones strapped to coxswain’s faces, and Joe’s mentor, designer George Yeomans Pocock (Peter Guinness), ritualistically waxing his prized boats. And he adds what thrills he can to a somewhat visually stagnant sport, cutting to all angles to capture the brute strength needed for these vehicles to cut across the water with swan-like grace.
But it’s an especially odd choice to emit the fact that, shortly before the competition, Moch received a letter from his father revealing that he is Jewish – once the team has conquered the elitists at home and arrive in Berlin, the film seems to lose all purpose. An announcer declares that this is “a boat full of underdogs representing an underdog nation”, and there’s a shot of Adolf Hitler, almost comically distraught at the idea of an American victory.
But then we see Joe stood next to Jesse Owens (Jyuddah Jaymes), the Black athlete who so poignantly won his four gold medals right under the gaze of white supremacy, not merely in Berlin but back at home in the US – and Clooney is forced to begrudgingly acknowledge that the more exciting story lies right out of frame.
Dir: George Clooney. Starring: Callum Turner, Joel Edgerton, Jack Mulhern, Sam Strike, Alec Newman, Peter Guinness, Luke Slattery, Hadley Robinson. 12A, 124 minutes
‘The Boys in the Boat’ is in cinemas from 12 January