If the day comes when a smart director decides to make “Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story,” he should seriously consider Callum Turner, the dreamy-boned star of George Clooney’s period rowing drama “The Boys in the Boat.” Turner, who is British (best known for his roles in the last two “Fantastic Beasts” movies), plays the doe-eyed, short-lipped, lock-jawed scowl of working-class prince Springsteen — albeit like Bruce himself. He admitted in his one-man Broadway show that he had completely made up his proletarian roots. He was a middle-class kid from Jersey who passed himself off as some kind of rough-and-tumble factory worker. Turner, who plays the key member of the 1936 University of Washington crew team in “The Boys in the Boat,” reflects the same duality.
His character, Joe Rantz, has been living alone since he was 14, in a tin-roofed camp in Seattle during the Depression (abandoned by his father after his mother died). When he tries to join the college rowing team, it’s strictly to make some money; He is studying to be an engineer and his tuition money is about to run out. Speaking in a stern, plain facts lady’s snarl, Turner displays her good intentions with masterful disdain; You really believe that he wouldn’t know how to show off. But he also has the husky charm of a star; a rock-steady gaze and Springsteen’s sexy hunger. In the film, Callum has thick blonde hair, making him a golden boy, but he’s a golden boy who cares more about doing the right thing than winning.
Based on a true story, “The Boys in the Boat” is a perfectly wholesome, sun-dappled, old-fashioned film that now fits into a rather ironic home. These days there’s usually a bona fide drama that comes out at the end of the year and serves as an alternative to award-winning movies. But that’s only because it’s framed as a traditional “crowd pleaser,” which means it was twenty or thirty years ago. has been an awards movie (or at least a wannabe awards movie). Remember “Chariots of Fire”? It won the Oscar for best picture in 1982. The dog won’t win the catcher award today, and “The Boys in the Boat,” a movie that might remind you of “Chariots of Fire,” is a kind of WASP fantasy sports movie. It could almost be a late ’90s Matt Damon movie, but with less internal conflict.
Of course, “Chariots of Fire” had the Vangelis synthesizer score that would add a time-soaring modernist sheen to the grueling upper-lip track racing. “The Boys in the Boat” features a musical score by Alexandre Desplat full of traditional gritty bravado. This matches the film where inspiration is heavy and complexity is light. We can already see Joe getting into the athletic version of basic training when he tries to join the rowing team, competing with 50 other young men for nine spots. Coach Al Ulbrickson, played by the studiously poker-faced Joel Edgerton (the fact that Al never smiles is a joke), tells the recruits: “Eight-man team is the hardest team sport in the world.” He is talking about two things at once: the physical demands (a test of strength and respiratory endurance) and the most difficult part, their synchronization. If the guys are out of sync even by a few noticable degrees, they will row against each other. But if they were in perfect harmony as a row of Rockettes, it would increase their speed because they would merge into a single machine. This is the poetry of the crew.
When Edgerton assigned Al to be his drill sergeant, I was ready for the showdown between him and Joe. At some point this happens, but in a very benign way. There’s never much conflict between the rowers, either, because the drama of the film is greater, almost allegorical: how these mostly working-class kids become the champion team because they have an enthusiasm that the teams at Harvard lack. Yale – traditional senior crew teams who have been rowing since childhood but are also slight products of privilege.
I won’t consider it a spoiler to say that the University of Washington rowing team beat out all competition to get into the 1936 Olympics – the famous Summer Games in Berlin presided over by Adolf Hitler, the games where Jesse Owens won his races and showed. The world is the boss. (Owens makes a brief appearance in the film, played by Jyuddah Jaymes, and gets a stern look at who he’s really proving himself to.) If you’ve heard of this legendary team-up, you know where the movie is headed. and there aren’t many bumps in the road. At the college library, Joe meets Joyce (Hadley Robinson), who flirts wildly with him, but we can tell within about five seconds that their love will be as pure and deep as that between James Stewart and Donna Reed in “It.” It’s a Wonderful Life.”
George Clooney’s skill in directing this film comes down to how he focuses on the details of the journey: Joe’s bond with the assistant coach (Peter Guinness) who builds hand-built boats, or Al having to politically maneuver college administrators into allowing the superior junior varsity team to compete instead of the varsity . (It was the JV team that went to the Olympics.) Meanwhile, Joe’s father shows up and triggers 15 minutes of mild Freudian trauma. The races are excitingly shot and edited as the camera follows and circles the boats from every angle, including some stunning vertical ones. The scenes get your pulse racing.
“The Boys in the Boat” is a gentleman’s sports movie; Clooney is working hard to make a movie that’s “like before.” He pulls it off, even if there’s a lingering weirdness to the whole thing. It’s arguably the best movie he’s directed since “The Ides of March” a dozen years ago. But if “The Boys in the Boat” reminds you that Clooney as a filmmaker has always been a Hollywood classic at heart, it’s also a testament to how timeless this kind of filmmaking now seems. Who would have guessed that the Oscars would now be too trendy for a movie like this?
“Kids in the Boat”
MPA rating: PG-13 (language and smoking)
Running time: 2:04
How to watch: In theaters now