Producers: Grant Heslov and George Clooney    Director: George Clooney   Screenplay: Mark L. Smith Cast: Joel Edgerton, Callum Turner, Peter Guinness, Jack Mulhern, James Wolk, Hadley Robinson, Courtney Henggeler, Sam Strike, Thomas Elms, Luke Slattery, Bruce Herbelin-Earle, Wil Coban, Thomas Stephen Varey, Joel Phillimore, Chris Diamantopoulos, Glenn Wrage, Edward Baker-Duly, Alec Newman, Jyuddah Jaymes and Daniel Philpott   Distributor: Amazon MGM Studios

Grade: C+

If asked to think of an unlikely American triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics—one that frustrated the hopes of Adolph Hitler, who watched the proceedings from the stands—you’d probably automatically focus on Jesse Owens.  But his story has already been told in Stephen Hopkins’ 2016 “Race” (not that it doesn’t deserve a better treatment than that).  Owens does appear, played by Jyuddah Jaymes, in George Clooney’s new film, but it’s in a very brief cameo that might make you think how much Owens looked like a young Chris Rock.   

No, “The Boys in the Boat” is about another American victory at the 1936 games—that of the University of Washington eight-man rowing team.  It might be less well-known (and less historically significant) than Owens’ multi-medal performance, but it was nonetheless remarkable, and even more unexpected—a true underdog sports story.           

Based on the 2013 book by Daniel James Brown, the film is formulaically old-fashioned to a fault.  It focuses on one of the boys of the title, Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), whom Brown interviewed prior to his death at ninety-three in 2007.  Rantz, whom the film shows in bookending scenes as an old man instructing his grandson in rowing, and who had been seat seven in Berlin, is portrayed as making his own way as a young man after being abandoned by his father Harry (Alec Newman) in the depths of the Great Depression.  He manages to gain entrance to the University of Washington, but the continuation of his engineering studies is threatened by a lack of tuition money, and so along with his friend Roger Morris (Sam Strike), he joins a mob of young men applying for spots on the school’s rowing team coached by Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) and his assistants Thomas Bolles (James Wolk) and George Pocock (Peter Guinness), because they carry stipends.  Joe and Roger are among the lucky few chosen after strenuous trials, making up a junior varsity team of lower-middle-class lads who would compete against squads of privileged boys from elite universities.

The film dutifully follows their training, as well as Joe’s romance with co-ed Joyce Simdars (Hadley Robinson), a golden-haired lass who meets him in the library and pursues him pretty relentlessly.  Of course he becomes as devoted to her as she is to him.  Joe also befriends Pocock, a serene man who lovingly crafts the team boats by hand and teaches him the tools of the trade.  Their patient smoothing of the hulls renders their relationship something akin to that between Daniel LaRusso and Mr. Miyagi.  Meanwhile Joyce’s unquestioningly supportive attitude toward Joe is paralleled by that of Hazel Ulbrickson (Courtney Henggeler) for her husband. 

That’s needed because Ulbrickson takes some unorthodox decisions powerful donors to the school object to, even after the junior team scores an unexpected triumph against the better-funded squad of the University of California Berkeley coached by Ky Ebrigh (Glenn Wrage), to which he’s assigned Bobby Moch (Luke Slattery) as coxswain, the ninth man on the boat who directs the rowers.  The appointment proves an essential ingredient in the team’s success, since the key is not only the strength and stamina of the crew members, but their perfect synchronization as oarsman—something that Moch achieves although, to be honest, the film doesn’t explain how.

Ultimately the superior performance of the junior team leads Ulbrickson to choose it to go to Berlin—another unconventional move—after it defeats Berkeley in a final intercollegiate competition.  But once again monetary obstacles arise, and the team must undertake a fundraising drive to finance the trip.  Even in the midst of the Depression, however, people contribute, since rowing, one might be surprised to learn, was an extremely popular spectator sport in the thirties: millions listened to races crowded around radios, and many of them, underemployed or not employed at all, identified with a team of working-class boys. (Even Rantz’s father briefly returns to his son’s life and makes a donation.)  Still the drive falls short until, in one of the few surprises in the film, the necessary funds suddenly come from a most unlikely source.

Needless to say, the difficulties, which include a short-lived tiff between Rantz and Ulbrickson, do not cease with the team’s arrival in Germany.  The most problematic is the sudden illness of Don Hume (Jack Mulhern), seat one on the team and the only team member, apart from Rantz and Morris, to get more than cursory attention—an ailment so serious that it leads Ulbrickson to consider replacing him, even though that would undermine the team’s performance. Fortunately he recovers sufficiently to take his rightful place on the boat which, under Moch’s brilliant direction, comes from far behind to eke out a photo-finish victory, much to Hitler’s displeasure, over the German and Italian teams.  (Daniel Philpott, by the way, is quite the worst fake Fuhrer the screen has ever seen, except for Dick Shawn.)

Clooney tells this remarkable yet predictable tale in a sedate, genteel style; though the races are energetically staged and elegantly shot. often from above, by cinematographer Martin Ruhe, the pacing of almost everything else, as edited by Tanya Swerling, is unrushed, and the production design (by Kalina Ivanov) and costumes (by Jenny Eagan) are discreetly low-key in capturing the period.  Alexandre Desplat’s score is among his least imaginative, though it hits appropriate notes of longing and, when appropriate, triumph.

Though Slattery, Strike, Mulhern and especially Guinness have their moments, the drama is dominated by Turner, who projects straight-arrow intensity as Rantz, and Edgerton, who seems to be channeling Kevin Spacey as his stern coach, though Robinson, as Joyce, exudes charm.  Everyone else give performances that are adequate if unexceptional. 

“The Boys in the Boat” strives very hard to be an upbeat crowd-pleaser of the old school, and to an extent it succeeds; but its familiarity and reliance on cliché are impediments that even its polished surface can’t overcome.