The Boys in the Boat (PG-13) ★★★

Review Date: December 26th, 2023

The Boys in the Boat is an old-fashioned, uplifting story about the triumph of underdogs. The film radiates the same level of classiness often associated with its director, George Clooney. Sentimental without being saccharine, this based-on-history account of the victory of the U.S. rowing team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics offers likeable characters in a well-structured narrative that never becomes bogged down by extraneous elements.

Mark L. Smith's screenplay relies heavily on the source material, Daniel James Brown's 2013 account of how an unsung University of Washington J.V. rowing team ascended to the upper echelon of the sport, winning a gold medal with Adolf Hitler in attendance. Because those Olympics are remembered primarily for the images crafted by Leni Riefenstahl in Olympia and the triumphs of Jesse Owens, the victory of the rowing team was for many years regarded as a footnote. That changed with the success of Brown's book, which ascended to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. Although the movie rights were quickly optioned (with Kenneth Branagh attached as director), it took a decade for a film to reach movie theaters.

The book The Boys in the Boat offers a two-pronged approach to the climactic Olympic contest that took place from August 12-14, 1936. To streamline the film's narrative, the backstory related to the Nazi preparation for the games has been elided, resulting in a focus on the University of Washington's team as seen primarily through the eyes of one of the rowers, Joe Rantz (Callum Turner). Although several of the other eight "boys in the boat" are given moments to help differentiate them from one another, Rantz is the lone rower with a fully developed character. The only other three-dimensional individual is Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton). Aside from Joyce Simdars (Hadley Robinson) and Hazel Ulbrickson (Courtney Henggeler) - token roles as Joe's girlfriend and Al's wife, respectively - there are no women to speak of.

The curtain rises on 1935 Seattle, with the world mired in the depths of the Great Depression. Joe Rantz, a student at the University of Washington, is facing expulsion from college due to an unpaid tuition bill. Unable to find a job and with day work at a premium, he decides to try out for the school's rowing team after learning that participants are given paid part-time positions. Of the hundreds of would-be rowers, only eight are selected following a grueling series of try-outs. Joe is one of them. With his economic issues at least temporarily resolved, he settles into bonding with the eight other young men in the J.V. boat as they develop into what would become, in the coach's words, the best team he has ever seen.

The movie's sports elements are impeccably recreated; even those who know the ending (as a matter of the historical record) will find an element of suspense in the way Clooney frames them. He does this not by fast-cutting or overly relying on editing but by clean, clear shots both at the boat level and from above. Winning becomes important because we are invested in Joe, who at one point states that being on the team is all he has.

Although The Boys in the Boat doesn't have a political agenda, it makes a point of acknowledging Jesse Owens' importance to the Olympics. Owens doesn't have a large role in the film - to give him one would unbalance the narrative and take the focus away from the main characters - but he notes that he's in Berlin not so much to thumb his nose at the Germans but to prove something to everyone back home who doubted him.

Tonally, The Boys in the Boat is a relatively low-key affair, lacking the overt melodrama that characterizes many sports movies. Nevertheless, in part because of a strong lead performance by Callum Turner, solid supporting work from Joel Edgerton and Peter Guinness (as George Pocock, the boat-builder), and a well-honed screenplay, the film engages viewers on its intended level. The period detail is evocative but not overbearing and there are no forced allegories. Offering inspiration in both the truth of its basis and the way in which it is presented, The Boys in the Boat is an antidote to the pervasive cynicism of the modern era.

© 2023 James Berardinelli