George Clooney’s The Boys in the Boat doesn’t revolutionize the sports drama formula, but its performances and technical execution make it an enjoyable watch.
There’s a scene halfway through George Clooney’s The Boys in the Boat, based on a true story and adapted from Daniel James Brown’s bestselling book of the same name by screenwriter Mark L. Smith, where Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton, of Boy Erased) finds himself talking to a group of student, parents, and supporters gathered at the University of Washington. It’s 1936, and he’s telling them that the school’s rowing team is about to compete in the Poughkeepsie Regatta, the most important race of the season.
“This year’s winner qualifies for an Olympic spot,” he says, adding that their university hasn’t won that race in nearly twenty years. “But we have a boat this year that I believe could change all that,” he says, to everyone’s excitement. “That boat is our junior boat.”
Coach Ulbrickson’s final statement is met with a mixture of silence, laughter, and disbelief, as said junior boat also happens to be the school’s most inexperienced team. But in the first half of the film, we got to know that team, and we learned that they are a very special group of resourceful young men. As we know from history, the junior varsity rowing team will indeed go on to represent the USA at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and even if you didn’t know that, chances are you’ll be able to guess the moment you’ll hear that speech. But The Boys in the Boat also tells us the story of how they got to that point, showing us the moment they met, the challenges they overcame, and their biggest achievements.
The movie mainly focuses on one of the students, Joe Rantz (Callum Turner, of Emma.), who also happens to be the only member of the team who’s not in it for the win. Having had to sustain himself since he was very young, since his father abandoned him to his own fate when he was fourteen, Joe is just looking to earn enough money to pay for the school and finish the year. Luckily, a spot on the team guarantees food, lodging, and a payroll, which means that Joe is also the most determined student in it.
And so, Joe starts undergoing a series of incredibly demanding tryouts, as only 9 students will make it into the “rowing eight,” which Coach Ulbrickson describes as “the most difficult team sport in the world.” As all of this happens, a young woman named Joyce (Hadley Robinson, of Little Women) takes an interest in him, and a romance begins to grow. And in between an extremely intense routine, Joe also finds the time to do some manual work for former coach George Pocock (Peter Guinness, of Chernobyl), who spends his days building the boats and getting them ready for the races.
The titular boys’ journey in the film mirrors what went on behind the scenes, as the cast had to train for 9 months to learn not only how to row, but also how to be in sync with each other. All the training paid off, as each and every single one of them excels in the film, and their rowing skills are as impressive as the filming techniques used to depict them in action. It’s not easy to film on water, and it’s even harder when you cannot get close to the boat you’re filming, as, as Clooney revealed in a Q&A for the press, rowing boats will capsize if another boat is next to them in the water.
But cinematographer Martin Ruhe (The Midnight Sky) found ways to get close to the team, and even though we get to see quite a lot of races, most of them are surprisingly gripping. With a combination of gorgeous aerial drone shots, close-ups, and medium shots of the team, the film finds clever ways to make these races not only stunning, but also exciting, tense, and at times emotional. The score is reminiscent of Dead Poets Society and so are a couple of scenes involving the students, including a nice throwback to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Callum Turner is fantastic as Joe Rantz, really making us care about the film’s protagonist and immersing us in his world. The screenplay also gives us enough time to get to know the other characters, both the team members — Luke Slattery is the standout as coxswain Bobby Moch, but every single “boy in the boat” leaves an impression on us — and the coaches. Joel Edgerton shines as, to use the star’s words, “one of these coaches who seem to derive zero pleasure from his job,” and Peter Guinness brings some charming, emotional moments as coach Pocock. Given the number of characters in the film, it’s impressive that each face is memorable the moment they are introduced to us, due to the acting on display and characterization.
Sadly, the story itself is straightforward to the point of cliché, and if you think you know where it’s going, you absolutely do. In the past, George Clooney has given us plenty of movies that didn’t have any major twists and yet kept us hooked due to how much we liked the characters: think of The Ides of March and Good Night, and Good Luck. But here, there’s simply very little too tell: it’s an inspirational underdog story, but it’s just not enough to make for truly compelling, memorable storytelling.
It doesn’t help that the love story feels tonally out of place, like it belongs to a completely different movie. Joyce feels like an obligatory love interest rather than an actual human being with a personality, and we aren’t given enough information to care about this blooming romance. If Joe’s rowing and training scenes are exciting, the moments he shares with Joyce are dull at best. On top of this, the film’s ending is extremely clichéd and underwhelming too.
The Boys in the Boat follows the sports drama formula to the letter, and this makes it sentimental and more than a little predictable. Yet, there is still absolutely an audience for this film, as it can be comforting to watch a movie that unfolds exactly as you thought it would. If you’re looking for an lighthearted, inspirational movie to watch with the family and are someone who enjoys straightforward narratives with a happy ending, then you’ll definitely like The Boys in the Boat.
The Boys in the Boat will be released in US & Canadian theaters on Christmas Day, and in UK & Irish cinemas on January 12, 2024.