It should tell you how high the regard in which I hold Michael Shannon is when I elect to watch a two-hour movie about him coaching a college rowing team.
Heart of Champions — produced by Shannon and written by Vojin Gjaja, a former Oarsman at Columbia University — has the tremendous opportunity to welcome audiences into the world of a sport very few films explore. A deluge of new releases every year are centered around basketball, football, or baseball, and rowing could ultimately use something of a PR boost. Outside of some pretty visuals and another strong outing from the routinely fantastic Shannon, Heart of Champions decides to pick up its pace long after you might’ve checked out.
Set at a fictional Ivy League school, Michael Mailer’s film opens with the university’s rowing team getting whooped by Harvard, their biggest rival. Team captain, Alex (Alexander Ludwig), blasts his team, and gets read the riot act from his dad (David James Elliot), a wealthy alum with a great deal of power and influence. He wants Alex to be selected for the Olympic team. To make those dreams a reality, he appoints Jack Murphy (Shannon) the coach of the rowing team.
Murphy is brought into bring discipline and leadership into a team that has very little of either. The surface-level problem is obviously Alex’s cocky and entitled demeanor, but Murphy diagnoses the team’s foundational issue minutes into his first meeting with them. They cannot answer a simple question: “why are you here?” The students lack purpose. Murphy’s chiseled jaw and stern coaching are here to change that.
Murphy makes some significant moves early into his tenure. He appoints John (Alex MacNicoll) as the “first chair,” ousting Alex in return, and he tries to reach Chris (Charles Melton), a young student who is rowing simply to maintain his scholarship despite his faded love for the sport. Complicating matters out of the water is John is dating Alex’s ex, Sara (Lilly Krug), and both John and Chris are harboring traumas of their own with lasting scars they carry as they’re trying to compete for a national college rowing title.
For the first hour, Gjaja doesn’t attempt anything creative nor inspiring with the story. He doesn’t make it a point to incorporate rowing culture or specific attributes found within the sport to the big-screen. He disappointingly relies on formula: the hard-nosed coach, the cocky prick captain, the quiet kid who is quietly better than the team leader, and the grieving student. The film’s methodical pace means it takes time telling this story despite the fact that any expected nuances in the story’s themes are underlined thanks to its devotion to stereotypical characters.
This material could be less interesting without someone like Michael Shannon at the center. Like a disappointed dad or a respected professor, when he speaks, you listen. His monologues and musings are welcomes seeing as the film tags the bases of predictability early and often. Alex and his dad will get into a war-of-words over what is best for the team. Meanwhile, Sara will be the unfortunate wedge between Alex and John’s relationship, and Chris will eventually open up to a girl (Ash Santos) he meets in the second act. You see all of this coming. In fact, with the film’s heavy telegraphing, it’s hard not to see it 20 minutes before it occurs.
Gjaja does take a sharp right turn to start the third act of Heart of Champions with a gumptious twist that wakes you up from the nap you’re flirting with taking. It’s flawed, for the most innocent and likable character in the film is punished, but at that point, I was happy to see the film had a pulse. Prior to this twist, the saving grace was Edd Lukas’ gorgeous cinematography, which captures the sun glistening off the water and the team rowing in unison in search of their “swing” (when everyone in the boat finds their universal groove and is instinctively driving the boat as a team).
Heart of Champions misses the mark to humanize a niche sport. However, Shannon’s ability to play an authoritarian presence coupled with a bold third act twist rescue the film from being a run-of-the-mill marathon of sports clichés. There are surely more rowing stories to be told. I hope for Gjaja this was the practice run.
NOTE: As of this writing, Heart of Champions is available to stream on Starz, as well as rent on multiple platforms.
Starring: Michael Shannon, Alexander Ludwig, Alex MacNicoll, Charles Melton, David James Elliott, Lully Krug, and Ash Santos. Directed by: Michael Mailer.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!