Other than Adolf Hitler, just about everybody in "The Boys in the Boat" is nice.

George Clooney's adaptation of the Daniel James Brown nonfiction bestseller almost feels like it could have been made when it's set, the 1930s, as a ragtag team of (nice) young rowers at the University of Washington trains and competes in hopes of a spot at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. To give you an idea of how old-fashioned "Boys" is, there's a scene where a young man summons his girlfriend by throwing a pebble at her window. And another where the two of them smooch in a railroad station before he races to leap on the departing train.

There's nothing wrong with those old-fashioned tropes. I suspect Clooney was thinking about Frank Capra's triumph-of-the-little-guy movies when he made "Boys," and he occasionally achieves that feel in heartfelt scenes such as one in which those same young people, Joe (Callum Turner) and Joyce (Hadley Robinson), kiss in the moonlight. She says, "You're all going to be famous. Then, you'll really forget about me," and he replies, "I don't think I could if I tried."

That could get goopy, but Clooney's instinct, wisely, is to ask actors to underplay the emotional stuff. Buoyed by composer Alexandre Desplat's soaring strings and cinematographer Martin Ruhe's lush, golden images, "Boys" summons a time when it was easier to figure out right and wrong.

Gifted with a photogenic sport (swift boats, filled with ripped youths, glide on glittering rivers, lined with emerald trees), the movie also is occasionally exciting. That's especially true in half a dozen races when Ruhe uses a cool, you-are-there camera technique that shifts from the face of one rower to the rower ahead of him each time they begin a new stroke.

Great looking as it is, though, "Boys" misses a lot of what makes this story special. Brown's book didn't dwell on the mundanities of rowing (which a stoic coach, played by Joel Edgerton, tells us is "more poetry than sport") but it did help us understand the responsibilities of each of the nine men in the boat. That's not the case in the movie, which barely bothers to introduce us to any rower who isn't Joe. A lot of what readers loved in Brown's book didn't make it into the movie, which might have worked better as a miniseries.

In particular, Clooney leaves out almost all of the setbacks that made "The Boys in the Boat" so unlikely and inspiring. For the most part, "Boys" is a series of increasingly bigger triumphs, which shortchanges the long odds the crew worked against, as well as the hard work they had to put in while in the boat and while attempting to finance their educations during the Depression. Clooney also tacks on a many-years-later framing device that distracts from the story.

If you've already read the book, I bet you'll enjoy seeing how Clooney envisions it for the screen but, if you haven't, I suspect you'll be confused about why Brown's work moved so many people.

Unlike Brown, Clooney just doesn't tell us enough about either the boys or the boat.

'The Boys in the Boat'
**½ out of 4 stars
Rated: PG-13 for language and smoking.
Where: In theaters.