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George Clooney’s Sports Movie Daydream

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If the day ever arrives when a smart director decides to make “Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story,” he should seriously consider casting Callum Turner, the dreamy raw-boned star of George Clooney’s period rowing drama “The Boys in the Boat.” Turner, who is British (he’s best known for his role in the last two “Fantastic Beasts” films), has the dark-eyed, purse-lipped, lock-jawed scowl of Springsteen the working-class prince — even though Bruce, as he admitted in his one-man Broadway show, totally trumped up his proletarian roots. He was a middle-class kid from Jersey palming himself off as a kind of roughneck factory worker of the soul. In “The Boys in the Boat,” Turner, playing the pivotal member of the 1936 University of Washington crew team, exudes the same duality.

His character, Joe Rantz, has been on his own since he was 14, living in a tin-roof encampment in Seattle during the Depression (he was abandoned by his father after his mother died). When he tries out for the college rowing team, it’s strictly to make some cash; he’s studying to be an engineer and is about to run out of tuition money. Turner, speaking in a gruff uninflected just-the-facts-ma’am growl, wears his bootstrap bona fides with expert understatement; you really believe that he wouldn’t know how to put on airs. But he’s also got the muffled glamour of a star — a rock-steady gaze and Springsteenian hunger. In the movie, Callum sports thick blond hair, making him a golden boy, but he’s a golden boy who cares more about doing the right thing than winning.

Drawn from a true story, “The Boys in the Boat” is a painstakingly wholesome, sun-dappled, old-fashioned movie that now fits into a rather ironic slot. These days, there is often a well-pedigreed drama that comes out at the end of the year and serves as an alternative to the awards films. But that’s only because it’s framed as a traditional “crowd-pleaser,” which means that two or three decades ago it would have been an awards film (or, at least, an awards wannabe). Remember “Chariots of Fire?” In 1982, it won the Oscar for best picture. Today, it wouldn’t win dog-catcher, and “The Boys in the Boat,” a movie that may remind you of “Chariots of Fire,” is a kind of WASP daydream of a sports movie. It could almost be a late-’90s Matt Damon movie, only with less interior conflict.

“Chariots of Fire,” of course, had its Vangelis synthesizer score to lend the stiff-upper-lip track races a gliding-in-time modernist sheen. “The Boys in the Boat” has a musical score, by Alexandre Desplat, that’s thick with traditional cornball valor. And that matches the movie, which is heavy on inspiration and light on complexity. When Joe tries out for the rowing team, competing with 50 other young men for what will be nine slots, we can already see that he’s entering the athletic version of basic training. The coach, Al Ulbrickson, played by a meticulously poker-faced Joel Edgerton (the fact that Al never smiles is a running joke), tells the recruits, “Eight-man crew is the most difficult team sport in the world.” He’s talking about two things at once: the physical demands of it — a test of strength and respiratory endurance — and, the trickiest part, the synchronization of it. If the men are out of sync, even by a few imperceptible degrees, they’ll be rowing against each other. But if they’re as perfectly in sync as a row of Rockettes, it will increase their speed, for they’ll fuse into one machine. That’s the poetry of crew.

With Edgerton’s Al set up as the drill sergeant, I was ready for a showdown between him and Joe. At one point that happens, but quite benignly. There’s never too much strife among the oarsmen either, because the film’s drama is larger, almost allegorical: how these boys, mostly from the working class, became a championship team because they had a moxie that wasn’t there in the teams from Harvard and Yale — the traditional upper-crust crew teams who’d been rowing since they were kids, but were also soft products of privilege.   

I will not consider it a spoiler to say that the University of Washington rowing team beat all its competition to make it 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 who was boss. (Owens is briefly in the movie, portrayed by Jyuddah Jaymes, and he gets a pointed line about who he was really proving himself to.) If you’ve heard of this fabled team at all, you know just where the movie is heading, and there aren’t too many bumps in the road. In the college library, Joe meets Joyce (Hadley Robinson), who flirts with him madly, but we can tell in about five seconds that their love is going to be as pure and deep as the one between James Stewart and Donna Reed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  

The skill with which George Clooney directs this movie relates to how he lingers on the details of the journey: Joe’s bond with the assistant coach (Peter Guinness) who builds the hand-made boats, or the way that Al has to maneuver politically with the college brass to let the superior junior varsity team compete in place of the varsity. (It was the JV team that wound up going to the Olympics.) Along the way, Joe’s father shows up, triggering 15 minutes of mild Freudian trauma. The races are thrillingly shot and edited, as the camera tracks and circles the boats from every angle, including some striking vertical ones. The scenes get your pulse racing.

“The Boys in the Boat” is a gentleman’s sports movie, with Clooney working hard to make one “like they used to.” He brings it off, even if there’s a lingering quaintness to it all. It’s easily the best movie he’s directed since “The Ides of March,” a dozen years ago. Yet if “The Boys in the Boat” reminds you that Clooney, as a filmmaker, has always been a Hollywood classicist at heart, it’s also a testament to how out of time that kind of filmmaking now seems. Who would have guessed that the Oscars would now be far too hip for a movie like this one?

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