THE BOYS IN THE BOAT Review: George Clooney's Stirring Ode To Boats and Boys

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
THE BOYS IN THE BOAT Review: George Clooney's Stirring Ode To Boats and Boys

By definition, the sports drama genre depends on an unwavering adherence to an inflexible formula, starting and ending with the underappreciated, often undervalued, occasionally underseen underdog.

Whether an individual or a collective, underdogs immediately garner audience sympathy, making them root-worthy from the get-go as they navigate and sometimes circumnavigate a whole host of obstacles, some internal, others personal, and still others external.

And when a formula like the underdog sports drama continues to work with audiences, it’s hard to argue about altering it in any significant manner. Just swap out protagonists, add some period flavor, if/when applicable, add a sheen of “based on a true story” verisimilitude, and the result would easily end up looking and sounding like the latest directorial effort by George Clooney (The Ides of March, Good Night, And Good Luck, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), an Old Hollywood-inspired adaptation of Daniel James Brown’s 2013 nonfiction book, The Boys in the Boat.

Dropping the overlong, over-blown subtitle of Brown’s book -- Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics -- Clooney’s adaptation centers the film, like the book, on everyman Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a  financially struggling college student. With the second half of the semester fast approaching and the needed funds nowhere in sight, Rantz faces the prospect of being forced to leave the University of Washington. Rantz dreams of becoming an engineer one day, but his immediate needs, like food, shelter, and paying for college fees, take precedence over future dreams or concerns.

Rantz gets just that opportunity when the University of Washington’s rowing team, led by Coach Al "Dour Dane" Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), sponsors tryouts for the junior varsity squad. Though the odds are stacked against Rantz by roughly 50:1, he makes the final cut along with one of his best friends, Roger Morris (Sam Strike).

Getting on the junior varsity rowing team, however, is just the start: Over several days, weeks, and months, Rantz, Morris, and seven others, including six rowers and a coxswain (team leader), must learn the basics of synchronized rowing, pushing their bodies, minds, and spirits to the breaking point and beyond.

That they do isn’t a mystery and certainly shouldn’t count as a spoiler, especially as The Boys in the Boat culminates with Rantz and his team competing against all odds — as if there are any other kind in sports dramas — against heavily favored Italian and German teams at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where Adolf Hitler, fully in control of Nazi Germany, hoped to prove the racial superiority of the so-called 'Aryan Race' by winning a boatload of medals. Rantz’s team and a little-known Black athlete, Jesse Owens, had something to say about Hitler’s medal-winning plan.

Before Rantz and his team can get to Berlin, however, obstacles, setbacks, and the occasional personal issue threaten to scuttle their plans. Clooney stages three rowing races, one in Washington as Rantz and his junior varsity team face off against a favored Cal Bears team, a second on the East Coast as Clooney, leaning heavily into the have-nots vs. haves theme, pits the Washington rowing team against their supposed Ivy League betters, and last at the Berlin Olympics where, if nothing else, the presence of Nazi paraphernalia (flags, uniforms, Germans “Heil Hitlering” periodically) serve as functional reminders of the symbolic stakes involved.

Closely working with cinematographer Martin Ruhe, composer Alexandre Desplat, and editor Tanya M. Swerling, Clooney successfully engineers the rowing scenes into the kind of crowd-pleasing entertainment that too often gets dinged for its non-seriousness or surface-deep appeal. At each competition, Clooney mixes in crowd reactions meant, at least in part, to mirror and guide our own, but just because it’s part of the sports drama formula doesn’t make it any less effective, especially when, as expected, the final competition involves the plucky, underdog Americans — drawn, it should be added, from the university’s nearby working-class proles — versus the well-fed, highly trained Germans.

As our viewpoint character, Rantz has to carry some serious emotional weight. With a real-world story that places him well behind his peers in terms of economics and family life, he’s a working-class hero made for the 20th century.

Abandoned at 14 by his widowed father, Rantz completed high school on his own and attended college without the benefit of scholarships or family support. Before joining the rowing team and getting room, board, and a part-time job, Rantz lived in an abandoned car. If Rantz’s story doesn’t symbolize American resilience, very few others can.

The by-the-sports-drama-numbers screenplay by Mark. L. Smith (The Marsh King’s Daughter, The Midnight Sky, The Revenant) also gives Rantz the obligatory romantic interest, Joyce Simdars (Hadley Robinson), a fellow student with a long-time crush on the naturally stoic, reticent Rantz. She’s on hand as needed story-wise to draw Rantz out of his self-imposed disengagement with anyone or anything not associated with school or the rowing team, literally offering up her shoulder when Rantz hits one of several low points and, since we’re going old-school here, clapping and cheering when Rantz and his team compete.

Not surprisingly, Clooney’s decision to keep the film focused exclusively on the rowing team of the title means that key background information or context gets pushed to the side, like the racial segregation that was the norm politically, culturally, and legally. A few quick cuts to a handful of Black Americans cheering on the team or a cameo by Jesse Owens at the opening ceremony results in a film that might be admittedly rousing in spurts, but also one that feels deliberately simplistic and intentionally inadequate to the period and the people it portrays onscreen.

The Boys in the Boat opens Monday, December 25, only in movie theaters, via Amazon MGM Studios.

The Boys in the Boat

  • George Clooney
  • Daniel James Brown
  • Mark L. Smith
  • Joel Edgerton
  • Callum Turner
  • Peter Guinness
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Alexandre DesplatCallum TurnerGeorge ClooneyJoe RantzJoel EdgertonMark L. SmithThe Boys in the BoatDaniel James BrownPeter GuinnessBiographyDramaSport

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