The Boys In The Boat review | George Clooney’s sports drama is dead in the water

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George Clooney directs a by-the-book sports drama about the University of Washinton’s rowing team. Here’s our The Boys In The Boat review. 

Hollywood loves a good sports movie. It’s a genre that really has stood the test of time, and one that keeps coming back.

On paper, George Clooney’s latest directorial effort The Boys In The Boat is about as classic a sports underdog movie as it gets. The film follows the University of Washington’s junior rowing team as they train under the watchful eye of Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton, with a permafrown). 

Clooney mostly frames the story through the eyes of Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a young student who signs up mostly for the opportunity to earn some cash to cover his tuition. The team bond over beers and a bonfire and work their butts off, eventually gaining the opportunity to travel to Germany to compete in the Olympics. 

Boys in the boat joel edgerton
Credit: Warner Bros.

Clooney’s career as a director had a promising start. His debut film was the outrageously stylish Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, and Clooney followed it with the black-and-white Good Night, And Good Luck. For this writer, though, 2011’s The Ides Of March is the director’s finest work. 

The Boys In The Boat isn’t even Clooney’s first sports movie – that honour goes to 2008’s Leatherheads. The film garnered mixed reviews back in the day, with critics praising the sports sequences but criticising the drama, and it seems like Clooney learned nothing from the experience. The Boys In The Boat excels when we’re in the water with the boys, but turns into a bore when we get out of the boat. 

Clooney’s film proceeds exactly as you’d imagine it would. We follow a group of remarkably similar looking lads as they do push ups, run laps and learn how to use oars until only a few are selected for the team. Unfortunately, neither Clooney nor writer Mark L Smith is able to create any meaningful dynamics or personalities for these strapping young men. Only Rantz is awarded a hint of backstory in the form of an absent father who returns to the picture because the film needs some kind of emotional stakes. But why would you spend time developing characters when you can just inject such a well-worn trope into your narrative? 

This is the part of the review where I’d usually write a few lines about the actors, but in all honesty, less than 24 hours after watching the film, I can barely remember anyone. Turner is a forgettable lead and even Joel Edgerton seems to be phoning it in. Hadley Robinson is the only one able to muster up some energy as Rantz’s girlfriend, Joyce, but she has no chemistry with Turner. 

Clooney’s film is also frustratingly, uncomfortably white. Sure, Clooney is telling a true story here and that limits your casting choices, but you’d think that a film set in the 1930s would have had at least a couple of roles for people of colour. The only other woman in the film is the Coach’s wife Hazel, played by Courtney Henggeler, and both women are thinly written and have no other function than to inspire the men around them. It’s lazy, and in 2024, audiences deserve better writing. 

All that being said, Clooney does manage to create some breathtakingly tense rowing scenes. Although the outcome of each race is predictable and we know where the story is going, the races feel genuinely exciting. There is an elegance, a grace, that Clooney strives for in The Boys In The Boat, and although the film is mostly a misfire, the director’s still able to create moments of tension. If only he could sustain it elsewhere. 

The Boys In The Boat is now in UK cinemas. 

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