George Clooney’s directing career has been one of both ecstasy and agony. His bold, respected spy dramedy debut (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) was immediately followed by the incredibly lauded (and incredibly great) period drama Good Night and Good Luck. What followed was a run of more mixed fare. One film was ambitious and flawed (The Midnight Sky), one overrated (The Ides of March), one undercooked (Leatherheads), and two really didn’t work (The Monuments Men, Suburbicon). Then came The Tender Bar in 2021, a modest piece of work featuring nuanced performances from an impressive cast. It’s an old-fashioned picture starring Ben Affleck, who offers many old-fashioned, matinee idol charms, square jaw and all. Perhaps Clooney learned something about himself as a filmmaker with The Tender Bar: he may be at his best when breathing life into fact-based drama and not trying to be too cute about it.

Clooney’s back in the chair with The Boys in the Boat, adapted from the book by Daniel James Brown. It tells the story of the 1936 University of Washington rowing team’s improbable journey to Olympic gold. Despite its obvious ensemble ear-markings, Callum Turner is the lead here and impressive as such. He plays Joe Rantz, a working-class student at the tail-end of making ends meet. The Great Depression has left him essentially without a family. His best option to stay in school? Make the rowing team, which offers a place to stay, food to eat, and enough money to get by. The team’s coaches are Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton, solid as ever) and his assistant Tom Bolles (James Wolk, charming), offering an odd-couple dynamic that’s not quite explored enough. Once Rantz makes the team, the heat is on. Ulbrickson’s job is on the line if he doesn’t post wins against some of the more elite, east coast teams (Ivy League schools with money and legacy) and Rantz’s place on the squad and enrollment go away if he underperforms. Fortunately, the opposite happens––the team soon finds itself competing for the sport’s highest honors.

This is, from start to finish, an underdog sports picture. Edgerton puts a welcome spin on the gruff-but-caring coach archetype, and Turner does the same with his lead character. Soft-spoken, stern, and handsome, this is a role someone like Ronald Reagan would have excelled at bringing to the screen some 80 years ago; Turner, luckily, is more interesting to look at and a better actor. Alexandre Desplat’s score is maybe the most playful thing about this film, and it works when it needs to. The race sequences are unquestionably Boys‘ highlight, Clooney making use of zoom lenses and well-placed cameras to capture the speed and fluidity of each competition. There is a real tension mined in these scenes, which feels like something the director has not really achieved before.

The worst moments in The Boys in the Boat are those that lean too far into the history of its story. There’s a woeful exchange with a soon-to-be victorious Jesse Owens (Jyuddah Jaymes) and a couple of distracting cutaways to Hitler (Daniel Philpott). Do we really need these very pat reminders of context for the 1936 Olympics? Perhaps we do; if only they worked better in the film.

There is an interesting thing about Clooney the filmmaker. Ever since his debut (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), he’s been at his best when avoiding cynicism. This is a classical director, someone who clearly enjoys bringing the past to life. With The Boys in the Boat, he found the right book and the right actors in Turner and Edgerton. One wonders if the audience is still there.

The Boys in the Boat opens in theaters on December 25.

Grade: B

No more articles