Nothing surprising ever happens in Director George Clooney’s dapper-looking, but mealy adaptation (with a script by Mark L. Smith) of Daniel James Brown's non-fiction bestseller. It's unfortunate because the book is so terrific--a stirring tale of a Depression-era JV University of Washington working class rowing crew who defy odds and make their way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics during Hitler's rule. Even those who may not be drawn to the subject matter may find the read a riveting page-turner, from the supple descriptions of boat construction up to the tense race between America and the Germans for the Gold. But the film tediously plods along as another by-the-numbers sports drama, filmed with a burnt gold sheen (shot by Martin Ruhe).
Missing are the visual lushness of Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck., the muscularity, and prickly wryness of a film like Ides of March. Perhaps those who are part of the rowing universe will find its competitions, as presented here, involving — but these soft, smoothly-filmed races (with waving, distractingly CGI-looking crowds) feel devoid of drama or much physical exertion (can't say the same of Annette Bening's swims in Nyad, as bonkers as that movie is, that I happened to view around the same time).
There are some bright qualities: Alexandre Desplat’s score is typical, but well-arranged and spirited; and the film, as artificial as it may feel, is attractive to behold: the bespoke clothes (costumes by the per usually great Jenny Eagan) and the distressed, burnished woods of the art direction look as if we are in the middle of a J Crew Men’s Store. Well-cast, scrappy Joel Edgerton as coach Al Ulbrickson faces some snags here and there throughout from stuffy brass types. His character can be against-the-grain and mild-mannered--a motivational speech before the climax shows his nerves--understated rather than predictably rousing.
The story mainly follows Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a student who lives in a makeshift camp, who becomes a part of the team. The rest of his teammates, unlike the book, are disappointingly glossed-over (compare this to the cinematic team in Penny Marshall's comedy A League of Their Own where every character is distinctive in some way). A budding romance with fellow student Joyce (Hadley Robinson) is unengaging. Because we get to know so little of the crew, the final race, which should be thrilling, mewls. A sentimental framing device is unnecessary, as we anticipate that ending to arrive from the opening frames. **