Adversity is a key theme in the movies. Be it competition against a rival school, difficulty with a stubborn parent, or the forcefulness of a mentor. Heart of Champions, a coming-of-age story set in the world of collegiate rowing, deals with all three. And such challenges are presented in a way that has been watched countless times, with the same beats and patterns, ending with an expected result. Yet, for as generic a title and as routine as the plot suggests, Heart of Champions actually pulls out a satisfying win.
Ironically, two of the producers are former Harvard crew, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, whose notoriety is connected to the start of Facebook, and were part of a defining boat race highlighted in The Social Network.
Set at the turn of this century, tough Army veteran, Coach Murphy (Michael Shannon), arrives to develop an Ivy-League crew team to take on their dreaded Harvard rivals. Murphy deals with ridiculous in-fighting, childish bickering, cliche romantic triangles, backstabbing faculty, and personal demons to unlock these spoiled kids’ true potentials.
Alongside Coach Murphy giving these boys meaning, the crew themselves have to learn to get along with each other, because of course they do. Conflict for the sake of conflict, folks. There is Alex, the blond bruiser who wants to make it to the Olympics. Chris, the boy with the troubled past who doesn’t want to be there. And John, the natural leader who actually buys into Murphy’s dreams.
Michael Mailer, better known for his producing role in the indie film world, gets behind the camera for this one. Heart of Champions, if anything, looks great. Mailer gets the camera into the boat and all of the shots in and around the rowing are gorgeously photographed. The sun sparkles like holiday LEDs on the water. The heavens are wide and all-consuming. And the crew slices through that dark, watery plane like a vapor trail in the sky.
Dealing with the downtime of the students and the adversity of their relationships – be those parental or romantic – is when the movie falls flat. There is a single scene where a snowfall ignites an insufferably-cliche flirtation, but truly, all the cinematic magic happens on the water.
Director Mailer and writer Vojin Gjaja manage to throw in a Dead Poet’s Society-sized twist that, although might not alter the set conclusion, is a grand attempt at breaking away from any well-worn tropes.
Michael Shannon is a class act and is always enjoyable to watch. Even though he gets top billing, this really is not his character’s story. Coach Murphy is meant to drive and to steer. And Shannon does that with his perennial gruff voice and commanding scowl. His antithesis, David James Elliott (perhaps best known for playing John Wayne in the spectacular Trumbo), plays a great devious dad.
The crew members all perform well with their mostly-stock roles. Alexander Lugwig (Alex), Charles Melton (Chris), and Alex MacNicoll (John) are all stars in the making. Heart of Champions has the potential to launch many careers like a Red Dawn for the 2020s.
What truly makes Heart of Champions worth the time is Edd Lukas’ cinematography. He plays with reflections on the water. He makes the sun sing and waves dance. He juxtaposes the gruelling efforts of the rowers with the beauty all around them. If anything is to be remembered about this movie is that it looks fantastic.
What also moves is Julian Scherle’s music. He creates an underlying theme that steadily grows as the competence of the team increases. The music is catchy and powerful and a treat to hear. Ironically, the only downplay is that the movie almost screamed for the occasional needledrop. Yet in that absence, Scherle’s compositions totally work.
You’ve seen it all before, right? And the answer is a resounding yes. This is paint-by-numbers using a wide-bristle brush.
And yet, magic happens on the water. The movie picks up speed and becomes an enjoyable presentation when all the superficial baggage is left behind on the dock.
Initially, this project was titled Swing. Swing, you see, is the rhythm a crew gets when all rowers are perfectly working in unison. They move as one. They can fly on the water, baby. Swing. And when this movie focuses on the sport. On the training. On rising above the pedestrian – and holy moley this film has a lot of street-level filler – Heart of Champions can swing.