The collegiate rowing movie “Heart of Champions,” currently in movie theaters, got destroyed immediately on Rotten Tomatoes by critics. It’s a ridiculous skew—Critics: 18 percent, the People: 90 percent. Critics tend to be allergic to formulaic sports dramas with clichéd character types, such as heroes carrying secret burdens that need healing, or obstacles that need overcoming, in order to win the big game and show character growth.
I’m more, “So what?” about this. The notion that “new and innovative” be synonymous with “good” when it comes to storytelling is overrated. There’s a reason that young children want to hear “Little Red Riding Hood” 800 times and will correct your reading if you get one word of it wrong. So in terms of sports movies, the question of “Is it new and improved?” is much less important than “Is it boring?” I don’t have a problem with this particular movie genre being somewhat clichéd. Why? Because these films are not really made for me.
“Heart of Champions,” a sports movie about college kids, is for college kids who actually play sports. So, while certain storylines may be predictable to me, they’re not necessarily predictable to 19-year-olds, and if it teaches them life lessons that I, in my elderhood, already happen to know—excellent. Sometimes the elders have to sacrifice the need to be continually surprised, so that the kids can learn the fundamentals. And in light of that, “Heart of Champions” is a perfectly fine, fun movie. A little overly long.
College crew teams (competitive rowing) are impressive; they’re the ones up at dawn, working hard in the “tank.” Crew is a tough sport. And like lacrosse in “Crooked Arrows,” rowing crew is generally the province of former prep schoolers attending Ivy League colleges and universities. Does this privilege mean underprivileged moviegoers can’t learn from this story? In a word, no.
Originally titled “Swing,” “Heart of Champions” happens to be brought to you by executive producers Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss, who rowed for Harvard and went on to compete in the Olympics. It’s highly likely that these are the self-same Winkelvoss twins who invented Facebook and had it stolen out from under their noses by Harvard classmate Mark Zuckerberg, the story of which is related in “The Social Network.”
Winklevoss production gives street cred to the crew jargon. Crew teams are recognizable by their developed pulling muscles: lats, biceps, and forearms. But their lesser-known, diminutive teammate—the boat’s jockey, as it were—who oversees the eight tall, oar-hauling muscleheads is known as the “coxswain.”
In “Heart of Champions” we’re also introduced to the positions of the “stroke,” the “seven,” and what “catching a crab” means: “To fail to clear the water on the recovery stroke accidentally, thereby unbalancing the boat or impeding its movement.”
You’ll learn about the concept of “swing” in crew: when the team shifts into an extrasensory mode and syncs and breathes as one, altering time and space. (Space in this case usually means blowing the doors off the competition.) You’ll appreciate how insanely tricky it is to balance these thin sculls, and see what the need to dig deep and deliver on the coxswain’s demand for a “power 10” is about. You’ll learn that a crew race is probably the most intensely painful lactic acid “burn” in all of sports. What else? You’ll learn about the crew tradition of the loser team surrendering their collective jerseys to the winners (and being roundly verbally shamed).
Alex (Alexander Ludwig of “The Hunger Games”) is the rich-kid crew member whose dad (David James Elliott) is doing major string-pulling to make sure his kid will glorify him by making the 2000 U.S. Olympic rowing team. His crew-captaining son is an entitled, teammate-bullying, ex-girlfriend-stalking, perennially-placing-blame-elsewhere brat.
John (Alex MacNicoll) is the teammate who’s got it all. He’s a nice guy and a natural leader. Former alumnus-turned-new-crew-coach Jack Murphy (Michael Shannon) is tempted to yank Alex’s captain status and give it to John. John could conceivably lead the team in their attempt to beat Harvard, but John’s got a lurking Achilles heel named alcohol.
Chris (“Riverdale” alum Charles Melton) plays a transfer student from the University of Wisconsin. He’s got life-destroying grief that he’s carrying around. He must be wheedled and cajoled to go drinking with the boys. He is aloof. He hates rowing but is a rowing phenom nonetheless.
It’s the Coach’s Show
Yup, pretty clichéd so far, rather paint-by-numbers, but the saving grace here is coach Jack Murphy, the new, ex-Army, no-nonsense coach of the fictitious Belleston University, who turns the boys’ 1999 crew season into a powerful life lesson.
Shannon’s a natural in this sort of role, being always imminently watchable due to having a quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) intensity that comes across as bordering on mentally unhinged. You can’t look away. The boys certainly can’t. “Why are you here?!” he wants to know during the first practice and after seeing the team lose a sizeable lead in national title race and get trounced. “No man is an island!” hollers the coach.
This is a movie about teamwork, and crew requires more precision teamwork than just about any sport, except maybe synchronized swimming. Rowing an eight-person scull competitively requires exquisite balance, massive stamina, cardio, coordination, and above all—cooperation. One self-centered individual’s desire to win above all else can scuttle a boat. Which is why the line “Leadership is measured in the hearts of those who follow” will resonate with you long after the movie, especially with Shannon delivering it.
In terms of the inevitable campus romances, Ash Santos, who plays Chris’s girlfriend Nisha, has a bit of a star-is-born presence. David James Elliott as Alex’s father—also responsible for recruiting Coach Murphy—usually plays nice guys and here goes against type to good effect.
A few movies have been made about crew—“A Most Beautiful Thing” and “Oxford Blues”—but the stars have always been team members and not the coach. A movie that fleshed out the main team characters more would have been top-notch, but ultimately, it’s about the character arc: Did the bad character improve? Was there a raising of the moral standard? Yes? And was it boring? No? Then it’s a good movie. It’s not rocket science. Director Michael Mailer isn’t trying to challenge Ingmar Bergman or Francis Ford Coppola here; it’s a good enough movie to have a positive effect on young viewers. Watching a scull move across the water in perfect synchronicity is, as the popular saying goes these days, a “curiously satisfying experience.”
My personal takeaway: When the disgruntled Chris, who thinks rowing is merely mathematical, claims that his teammates are just slowing him down, coach Murphy has all Chris’s boatmates jump in the river and swim to shore. “OK row the boat!” One man floundering in an a eight-man scull gives a fun new slant to the lyric “Michael row the boat ashore.”
One last thing—another way of thinking about “clichés” is “tried and true.” Would you really want your mom fiddling all the time with the tasty-tasty-tasty traditional Thanksgiving pumpkin pie recipe she got from your grandmother? Or would you want it exactly the same way every year?
“Heart of Champions” premiered in theaters Oct. 29 and can be viewed on VOD Nov. 19.
‘Heart of Champions’
Director: Michael Mailer
Starring: Michael Shannon, Alexander Ludwig, Alex MacNicoll, Lance E. Nichols, Lilly Krug, Andrew Creer, Ash Santos, David James Elliott
Running Time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: Oct. 29, 2021
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars