True Blue (retitled Miracle at Oxford for the U.S. DVD release and later for Netflix) is a fictionalized retelling of the 1987 Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race and the mutiny that occurred between some of the Oxford rowers and their coach. After badly losing to Cambridge in the highly competitive annual rowing competition, two rowers from Oxford (Donald MacDonald played by Dominic West and his friend Rick Ross played by Brian McGovern) vow to win next year’s race. They bring over some of the best rowers from the United States to make up some of the new recruits trying out for the top spots in the primary rowing team. One of the Americans, the cocky Dan Warren (played by Josh Lucas), was in the Olympics and has an air of superiority. Conflict starts brewing between the new team and MacDonald (who is a rower as well as this year’s president) and the coach (played by Johan Leysen). The Americans, Warren in particular, begin making demands when they doubt the training methods of the coach. Tensions get so high they threaten to not row if certain rowers (who they think are needed) don’t get the spots on the team. With friendships damaged and a team without any comradery, will they be able to pull everything together and end all the bickering in time to win the race? Or will the team have to say goodbye to its president and its coach in order to win on the day?
This has a fairly nice cast (you have people like Dominic West, Dylan Baker, Josh Lucas, Tom Hollander, Bill Nighy, and even Alexis Denisof in a small part), but it can be hard to find someone to with which to sympathize. The antagonists (led by Warren) are jackasses who act like they know everything and act childishly and practically blackmail MacDonald and the coach when they don’t get their way. The so-called good guys, meanwhile, come off as petty and almost as unlikable as our antagonists. That may have been intentional. The screenwriter might have wanted to create flaws for both camps so that you don’t know who’s right or who’s wrong or if it’s neither or both. It’s interesting to think about but not terribly entertaining to watch.
The script has other problems. It’s so bland, for a start. Beyond having a slightly out of the norm sport and a little known (in the States anyway) true story to focus on, there’s nothing that stands out. It’s pure run of the mill, which is the worst quality any movie can possess.
But that isn’t its biggest problem. Where True Blue crumbles is in its total failure in getting me to care one tinsey, tiny, little morsel of a bit about rowing. We are privy to the history of this important race and how big it is at the respective universities, but at no point is it made clear why people who row love to do it. I can hear you saying now, “Why, Tim. The appeal of Basketball, Baseball, and etc. don’t have to be explained in every film made about them.” True. But rowing, at least here in the United States and I’m assuming elsewhere, doesn’t have the largest fanbase. Even if you live somewhere where rowing is everything, you might have no interest in it and may need someone to explain why people are passionate about it. This film doesn’t do that. There’s no in for outsiders. The director also doesn’t shoot it dynamically, and, except for the actual race itself during the climax, the rowing scenes are about as exciting as, well, people rowing down a river.
We don’t even see a lot of rowing in this movie. There’s bickering and backstabbing more than anything else. All good movies are about characters but the lack of the sport in the sport movie is very odd. Mixed with the film never getting why people like the sport, it feels like the filmmakers don’t even care about rowing.
What this film really needed was a few more drafts to iron out the mundane, ‘been there, done that’s of the script. It’s okay, but there’s nothing that makes it standout from the crowd of the many, many, many, MANY sport films out there.