Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 28, 2021 1:07 pm 
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Competition on and off the water, guided sometimes by a steely coach

Heart of Champions is a movie about college rowing competition whose enjoyable and authentic-feeling training and racing sequences are marred by some rather on-the-nose if heartfelt material about coaching and team sport, the latter dependent on the steely edge of Michael Shannon, the name actor in the piece and a co-producer. Other co-producers are the famous Harvard rowers who sparred with Mark Zuckerberg in the early days of Facebook (and long after), Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the "Winklevii." Their presence should promise authenticity on the water. The rowing scenes are high points, well filmed, rousing, and to a non-rower, seem surprisingly real. This is a fascinating sport, beautiful, quiet, hiding the intensity and concentration of its competition with the scull's quiet glide over crystal water yet requiring the ultimate physical effort. As we're reminded more than once here, its only 2000 meters covered in six minutes, but it can be the experience of a lifetime. The personal lives of the rowers are less convincing. Viewers might prefer a documentary about rowing, of which there are a couple.

Jack Murphy (Shannon) is a war vet (what war isn't said, but this is set around Y2K time) whose past traumas are a text from which he draws his principles. He is an alumnus of this made up Ivy League college, and rowed here, though his credentials as a coach are, oddly, unspecified. There is a clunky bad guy, Mr. Singleton (David James Elliott) father of leading rower Alex (Alexander Ludwig of Hunger Games and Vikings), who has power at the school, though the college president (Lance E. Nichols) won't do everything he wants. He sees the rowing team merely as a showcase for his son's Olympic potential. Jack Murphy has no use for that, and installs another rower, Kimball (Alex MacNicoll) in the first or "bow" seat, putting Alex back in #7.

A key new member is Chris (Charles Melton, a cast member with Ludwig in "Bad Boys for Life"). He arrives laden down with a terrible family tragedy that makes him hate rowing, but he's a rower born and bred, and Coach Murphy talks him into contributing significantly to the rowing eight. His lack of skill at communication will cause him trouble with a new girlfriend, and his lack of enthusiasm for the team will cause him to clash with the coach.

Perhaps no sport requires more intimate teamwork, and Murphy teaches the young men to work closely together by innovative devices like making them run five miles with their feet tied together. (That's a tough one.) He has them row blindfolded, also very much an acquired skill, to learn to "feel the swing," their bodies in complete unison with the feel and sound of the row. When Chris scoffs at such devices (he sees each man as an island), the coach has a dramatic exercise to banish his skepticism. While in a documentary film * about rowing at a famous boarding school in Australia - which provides more specifics of the sport - shows the skilled coach cycling along the riverbank to follow the rowers, on standing in a motorboat, the idiosyncratic Coach Murphy sometimes takes to a single scull to challenge the team rowing on his own.

A key figure in the rowing at all times is the coxswain or cox, Ted (Michael Tacconi), who is present in front of the scull steering and coaching the minute strategies of each race though in the peripheral drama here, he's just an extra. And that leaves five team members who are not even identified, and rarely have lines. It's the personal drama, focused on the three key rowers, that gets dicey. The screenplay favors tragic backgrounds, and throws in a present-time tragedy right before the big race as well. Alex has to work out his conflict between loyalties to his manipulative, egocentric father and the idealistic coach.

Another complication, crucial for the drama, is girlfriends. Alex and Kim have not only a conflict on the water but over a young lady, Sara (Lilly Krug), and Chris is conflicted with himself over Nisha (Ash Santos), who's from London. Chris is conflicted over everything: the writing about him and about how everything ends in general is muddled. The writer, Vojin Gjaja, rowed at top-ranked Columbia University, we're told, and that experience and service in the US Army informed the outlines of his screenplay. We don't know if the somewhat superfluous tragedy and melodrama he laces the story with are also based on personal experience, or just on seeing a lot of movies.

This would be a watchable film, with good moments provided by the younger players as well as Michael Shannon, except that it falls into cliché, and lacks clarity and punch in its final section, whose unclear scenes the director must also be faulted for.

Heart of Champions, 119 mins., debuted Sep. 16, 2021 at Oldenburg (Germany). US theatrical release Oct. 29. : no score yet.
*The film is called "The Crew Rowing Documentary," is by Onion Films, and concerns Nudgee College in Brisbane.

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