HEART OF CHAMPIONS (2021)

October 31, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. We’ve seen most of this before in a long list of inspirational sports stories where the beleaguered, tough as nails coach comes in and unites a rag-tag team while teaching life lessons. However, with (2-time Oscar nominee) Michael Shannon cast as the coach, we know there will be at least one performance worth watching. The screenplay is from Vojin Gjaja and it’s directed by Michael Mailer (son of 2-time Pulitzer Prize winning author, Norman Mailer).

The film opens in May 1999 as a crew team finishes last in the Collegiate Rowing Championships. Inner-team bickering and animosity exists thanks to domineering Team Captain Alex (Alexander Ludwig, “Vikings”). The following year, the team is introduced to their new coach, Coach Murphy (Shannon). He has a different approach and he’s focused on creating a team, rather than a few guys with oars. All we really learn about Murphy is that he’s an alum and former rower for this same college, and an Army and Vietnam veteran who lost friends in the war, and carries that burden with him every day.

Alex (Ludwig) is back for his senior year and his goal is to be chosen for the Olympics team … a goal his over-bearing father (David James Elliott, “JAG”) reminds him of every few minutes. The other two crew members who get significant screen time are John (Alex MacNicoll, ALL ROADS TO PEARLA, 2019) and newcomer Chris (Charles Melton, THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR, 2019). John is dating Alex’s ex-girlfriend Sara (Ash Santos), while transfer student Chris is dealing with a recent tragedy, and also attracted to Sara’s friend Nisha (Lilly Krug, EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE, 2021). And yes, at times the melodrama of these folks is just a bit too heavy-handed and soap opera-ish. Coach Murphy is clearly the most interesting character, yet the film spends the bulk of its time on the youngsters and their daily journey.

One of the plusses here is that the sport at the center is rowing, which at least veers from the typical sports fare. But then we learn very little about the sport, other than it blisters your hands and causes your lungs to burn … and there is “swing” which occurs when the team is in full sync. Mr. Shannon does as much with his underwritten role as possible; however, overall the movie is just a bit too generic with its final lesson of, “a loss is not the end.” Should you have an interest in a true life rowing story, allow me to recommend the 2013 book (my son recommended to me), “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics” by Daniel James Brown

Opened October 29, 2021

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