The Boys in the Boat

George Clooney's latest stint behind the camera tells a stirring and solid underdog sports tale set amid the Great Depression, drawing upon history with help from Joel Edgerton.
Sarah Ward
December 22, 2023

Overview

The Social Network isn't a rowing film, but the Henley Royal Regatta sequence in David Fincher's (The Killer) 2010 triumph quickly became one of cinema's most-famous oar-sweeping moments. Prestige, money, tradition, opulence, power, competition, determination: they all wash through the tightly shot segment, which gleams with the water of the River Thames, the sweat on the crew's faces and, just as importantly, with status. Definitely a rowing film, The Boys in the Boat paddles into the same world; however, a commentator's line mid-movie sums up the focus and angle of this old-fashioned underdog sports flick. "Old money versus no money at all" is how the usual big and rich names in the field and the University of Washington's junior varsity team are compared. George Clooney's (The Tender Bar) ninth feature as a director doesn't just spot the class-clash difference there — his entire picture wades into that gulf.

Drawn from 2013 non-fiction novel The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown, reuniting Clooney with his The Midnight Sky screenwriter Mark L Smith in the process, The Boys in the Boat is about the UW's rowing efforts, rower Joe Rantz and coach Al Ulbrickson, too — plus an against-the-odds quest, bold choices, the struggles of the Great Depression, the reality of an Olympics held under the Nazi regime and the looming shadow of war. But thrumming at its heart like a coxswain is setting the pace is the mission to keep afloat one stroke at a time, and not merely in the pursuit of glory and medals. What rowing means to Rantz (Callum Turner, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore), the character at its centre, as well as to the classmates-turned-crewmates catching and extracting with him, is pure survival first and foremost.

Rantz is the engineering student who lines his shoes with newspaper to cover the holes in their soles, has no reliable place to sleep and hasn't been a stranger to going hungry for years. He's had zero family to support him since he was 14, thanks to his remarried dad, and he'll no longer be at college if he can't come up with his tuition fees. If the details weren't all true, and if The Boys in the Boat wasn't so matter-of-fact about them — patient in its overall pacing, handsome in its imagery, and clear-eyed about the dire and desperate situation its protagonist is in when everything changes — then the movie's plot might seem to be a Hollywood confection. Indeed, Clooney's current jump behind the lens feels like a throwback thanks to its sincerity, and its understatement along with it. Finding emotion in the specifics of Rantz's life and feats isn't hard, so there's no forceful poking and jabbing needed.

That existence-shifting turn comes via trials for UW's JV rowers, not out of affinity for or interest in the sport but because his similarly doing-it-rough pal Roger Morris (Sam Strike, American Outlaws) mentions that there'll be lodging and pay for whoever gets picked. Hundreds show up. Only eight will make it. The gratitude in their eyes is the antithesis of the entitlement spied when The Boys in the Boat enrols them in races against competitors from cashed-up schools, and as The Social Network's time in racing shells splashed around so successfully. Where Rantz's journey glides from there isn't difficult to guess, as seen in training montages, rising passion for his new endeavour, gaining more confidence about falling for childhood friend Joyce (Hadley Robinson, Anyone But You), butting heads with the stoic Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton, I'm a Virgo) and receiving words of wisdom from boatbuilder George Pocock (Peter Guinness, Jack Ryan). And yet, in a move that separates it from the clumsy breeziness of the other underdog sports flick based on real-life hitting silver screens of late, Next Goal Wins, it's always told with the utmost earnestness.

The Boys in the Boat is solid, then — an apt state for a film about securing sure footing atop a substance that's anything but. Clooney's fellow key craftspeople, including cinematographer Martin Ruhe (who shot The Tender Bar and The Midnight Sky), editor Tanya M Swerling (returning from The Tender Bar as well) and composer Alexandre Desplat (also back from The Midnight Sky), make their pivotal contributions just as reliably. Scenes with oars in hand are a particular thrill, contrasting the exertion, resolve and grit to persist within the UW boat with the shimmering water and scenic surroundings. Peering at Turner and Edgerton, their characters pitched as opposites who aren't really, proves equally revealing in conveying why Rantz and the crew's toils — and Ulbrickson's tough love — is all about persevering no matter what, too.

As a filmmaker, Clooney started out making movies that he'd also act in, albeit regularly leaving the leading parts to his co-stars. In his 2002 directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, as in 2017's Suburbicon, 2021's The Tender Bar and now The Boys in the Boat, for example, he's been perfecting the art of enlisting other talents to play roles that he might've once (or easily could've, but has chosen not to). Edgerton's performance as Ulbrickson slides into that category. That said, he brings his own interiority and intensity to a figure who rarely cracks a smile, appears dedicated to winning above all else — putting the JV squad in races over their senior counterparts if it'll improve his chances of victory, in fact, and regardless of the uproar sparked — yet also clearly cares, even if his way of showing it is simply going about the team's business as usual.

Evident in Edgerton's portrayal, and Turner's — the movie would sink if it wasn't — is tenacity that goes past the promise of prizes, fame and acclaim. As much as the film sees the desolation of the period, its push against the privilege, elitism and affluence that's often synonymous with rowing shines through strongest in its characters. This can't be called a scrappy picture in any sense but, as Turner and Edgerton ensure with help from Strike, Luke Slattery (New Amsterdam) as coxswain Bobby Much and Jack Mulhern (Pet Sematary: Bloodlines) as crew member Don Hume, it's filled with scrappers. While The Social Network will remain the pinnacle of rowing on-screen for now, telling a familiar tale well, The Boys in the Boat brings stirring depth. 

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