Despite the plural “boys” in the title, Clooney’s film only has interest in one boy in the boat. That’s Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a student at the University of Washington struggling to scrap together the money for his tuition. Desperate for any gig that might help him cover the costs, Rantz takes a flyer on tryouts for the school’s rowing team despite having no experience in the sport. It does not take a genius to guess what comes next for Rantz.
It might not be surprising if you couldn’t pick Callum Turner from a lineup of his British millennial actor peers like Josh O’Connor and George MacKay. (He was not well-served by the “Fantastic Beasts” series.) But Rantz proves a fine fit for Turner, whose imposing frame and quiet brooding make him a perfect embodiment of the Greatest Generation’s brand of masculinity. He’s not blank, just appropriately stoic for the time.
And the more “The Boys in the Boat” fills in his backstory, from being orphaned to providing for himself since his teen years, the more it makes sense that Rantz’s real-world resilience would carry over into the boat. The film does not always give Turner the best material to work with off the water, including some residual family trauma that manifests in obvious ways and a romantic relationship for which he has no vocabulary of affection. Yet the small grace notes Turner locates in his character’s connection to the engineering of the boats give the film its closest brush with greatness.
Mark L. Smith’s screenplay for “The Boys in the Boat,” adapted from Daniel James Brown’s bestselling book of the same name, does not grant the same level of insight into the lives of Rantz’s seven teammates rowing alongside him. It misses the opportunity to be a true ensemble film like “Miracle,” another comparable tale of amateur American athletes achieving Olympic glory together. The other Washington athletes are a largely indistinguishable mass in the film, apart from perhaps coxswain Bobby Moch (Luke Slattery), who brings a needed energy jolt with his cajoling in the boat.