THE BOYS IN THE BOAT (2023)
A 1930s-set story centered on the University of Washington's rowing team, from their Depression-era beginnings to winning gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Under the rhythm of oars, the caress of golden sunlight, and the rapt gaze of countless onlookers, George Clooney has painted rowing as the most romantic of sports. It’s a tapestry woven from unity, where eight men and a single vessel merge into one through sheer focus and iron will. Finer than poetry, more stirring than any anthem, rowing becomes an object of reverence, a sport that even triumphed over Hitler’s shadow in the twilight days before World War II. Clooney tells this tale with the glint of sun on oiled shells, the charm of an underdog, and an infectious optimism. But beneath the glittering surface, does darkness lurk?
Inspired by Daniel James Brown’s book, itself based on the true story of Joe Rantz and his University of Washington crew team, The Boys in the Boat chronicles the ascent of a ragtag group of Depression-era rowers. Back then, swathes of Seattle were blighted by shantytowns of corrugated iron huts perched on dusty lots. Hooverville was one such area, where Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) scraped by in a shack after his father forced him to live independently to save money. Facing expulsion for unpaid fees, Joe and his buddy Roger (Sam Strike) take a chance on the rowing team, its offerings of room, board, and a paycheck proving irresistible. When their crew unexpectedly triumphs in their first race, Coach Newell (Joel Edgerton) and the team’s boatwright (Peter Guinness) glimpse a glimmer of a greater possibility: victory at the Berlin Olympics. However, entrenched rowing powers sneer at these upstarts, forcing the boys and their resolute coach to battle for their right to compete.
Despite a modest budget, the production designers and special effects crew have faithfully recreated many of the locations photographed in Brown’s book. The boys bunk in the same iron cots as the real team, spectators watch from a special train kitted out to track the race, and even the rowing docks capture the spirit of the originals. It’s clear that the book’s photos offer a rose-tinted view of the Great Depression, so the movie doesn’t recreate what was, but rather what we remember it as. As such, it’s not quite a historical reenactment, and the pleasant weather and handsome faces add a touch of Hollywood, but overall it’s a fond look back on a warm story.
The cast shines throughout, delivering performances that feel strikingly genuine. Joel Edgerton brings the star power, injecting subtle brilliance into his bravura act. With a trademark scowl and a perpetual squint, he anchors the team, steering the drama without uttering many words. Peter Guinness perfectly balances him as the wise old boatswain, George Pocock; his weighty stares and sage advice elevate this underdog story, pushing it beyond mere Hallmark territory. These two steal the show. And while Callum Turner tackles his character with admirable vigour, Edgerton’s ability to hijack the entire film with a single smile showcases acting on a whole different plane.
That said, the cast of rowers do incredible work with the physicality of their roles. Having trained for five-months straight, the camera showcases their hard work with a keen eye on the action. They may not be professional rowers (and Clooney has said: the other boats, who were professional rowers, had to slow down for them), but you wouldn’t know it by watching their stoic faces and rhythmic motions.
Book purists, take heart! The film captures the book’s essence while adding some Hollywood flourishes (the Berlin race finale isn’t quite as high-octane). However, it streamlines the narrative by dropping elements: Hitler’s pre-Olympics machinations, Joe Rantz’s romance with Joyce, and deeper dives into the boys’ stories and Rantz’s personal life. These sacrifices, though bittersweet, ensure a cohesive and engaging cinematic experience.
The Boys in The Boat’s biggest weakness might be its unyielding optimism. This sports drama, though filled with arguments and setbacks, never allows its characters to become truly cruel or bitter. Kindness invariably triumphs, even in the face of adversity. Costume designer Jenny Egan’s meticulous work further exacerbates this tendency, with Depression-era characters looking unexpectedly dashing and elegant. This pervasive warmth and optimism contrast with the source material, a rich and expansive character drama exploring the complexities of human relationships. Yet, sometimes, that’s exactly what a viewer desires: to see underdogs triumph over adversity, differences set aside for the greater good, and a band of oarsmen claim Olympic gold.
USA | 2023 | 123 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: George Clooney.
writer: Mark L. Smith (based on the book by Daniel James Brown).
starring: Joel Edgerton, Callum Turner, Peter Guinness, Sam Strike, Hadley Robinson, Courtney Henggeler & James Wolk.