Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 23rd, 2023
The Boys in the Boat (George Clooney, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
While George Clooney’s The Boys in the Boat, an adaptation of Daniel James Brown’s 2013 nonfiction book, offers nothing particularly novel in its approach to storytelling, the narrative is crafted with enough skill to engage throughout. A period piece set during America’s Great Depression, the movie follows the struggles of eight young men, with their coaches and loved ones, as they navigate obstacles both internal and external along the way to an impressive, against-the-odds win. The sport is crew (or rowing), the competition the Olympics. Best of all, the enemies are the Nazis. What’s not to like?
The fact that we’ve seen this kind of film before certainly detracts from some of the pleasures, but that’s also a source of comfort. We know the tropes, if not the details, and the performances are all fully engaged and draw us in. The boys can row, for sure, but more importantly, they reveal their innermost selves.
Or some of them, at least. Front and center is Joe Rantz (Callum Turner, The Last Letter from Your Lover), a working-class student at the University of Washington who takes up the sport since those who make the team are promised much-needed room and board. Like the others, he has a hard time of it, not only because of the physical demands of training, but also from the consistent malaise of the decade.
The coach, Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton, Red Sparrow) has his hands full to get the novice athletes up to competition level, even if they are merely Junior Varsity. Surprisingly, these latest recruits (Joe, et. al.) prove stronger than the more experienced Varsity. And so Ulbrickson decides to back them, instead, no matter what scandal that may cause.
The movie follows the highs and lows of the various races that lead to the Olympic-qualifying one in Poughkeepsie, which—plot spoiler, but not really—our “boys” win. From there they head to Berlin, though not without some last-minute problems with money. One thing that the script, by Mark L. Smith (The Midnight Sky), does very well is remind us, all the time, how the Washington Huskies were by no means part of the establishment that was expected to send a boat to Germany. And their financial woes were only part of the problem.
In any case, even if the eventual conclusion is a foregone one, there are many subplots that move us deeply, among them Joe’s romance with college classmate (and childhood crush) Joyce (Hadley Robinson, The Pale Blue Eye), as well as his relationship with boat designer and mentor George Pocock (Peter Guinness, The Last Boy), not to mention the many supporting tales of Joe’s crewmates. This is a classic feel-good film, with exquisite production design and cinematography—courtesy of Kalina Ivanov (Long Shot) and Martin Ruhe (The Tender Bar), respectively—as a lovely cherry on top. It may not be high art, but it’s very fine entertainment.