The Boys in the Boat – Film Review

The Boys in the Boat is set in Seattle, Washington, 1936, during the middle of The Great Depression. Times are tough for everyone but for young men like Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), things are especially bleak.

With his mother passed on and his father abandoning him, Joe sleeps in an abandoned car, patches his shoes with newspaper and struggles to find odd jobs to pay his tuition at the University of Washington.

Meanwhile Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) is looking for students to fill his junior varsity 8 men athletics rowing team. The competition is stiff with dozens of men competing for the mere 8 slots available. At first, simply looking for a paying job, Joe applies with his friend Roger (Sam Strike) and begins the gruelling qualification period. Incredibly, both Joe and Sam make the cut and through sheer perseverance, this rowing team of working class men actually begin to outclass the senior, better funded teams.

While unsure of themselves, the men work together as a strong unit surpassing everyone’s expectations, especially Ulbrickson‘s. Making the hard decision to prioritise this JV team against the school’s star athletes. the coach has a plan. Facing pressure from those wanting to buy their way to success, Ulbrickson puts his JV team in the running to compete for America at the Olympics. If this team of 9 men (8 crew + 1 coxswain to steer the boat) can prove themselves, they’ll be rowing for gold in Berlin. If they think they’ve faced unfair opposition so far, it will be nothing compared to that of the Nazi party and their deceitful ways!

This inspirational true story comes based on the New York Times bestselling book of the same name by Daniel James Brown. A tale of underdogs proving their resolve in the face of personal and social doubt, The Boys in the Boat directed by George Clooney. Here, the A list star continues his recent trend of remaining behind the camera.

The Boys in the Boat tells an interesting story from nearly a century ago which I had not heard about. It’s probably the only film I’ve ever seen about the 1936 Berlin Olympics which was not about the great Jesse Owens. While Owens does make an appearance in this film, even then it is to strengthen the central driving force behind its protagonists. That they are not going out there to show up the Germans, but rather to show their fellow Americans, and themselves, what they are capable of.

Great care is taken to portray the period and the struggles that the working class went through at the time. The bonds, as we’re shown, which grow between the men feel wholesome, shaped by their shared hardship faced during The Great Depression, with costume design by Jenny Eagan, helping to recreate both the highs and the lows of fashion between ‘the haves and the have nots’.

I didn’t know a whole lot about the sport of 8 man rowing before watching this film and unfortunately, I feel like I still don’t. There is some attempt early on to show us the ropes through the eyes of Joe, himself completely new to the sport. But it isn’t long before the tactics and techniques of the sport fall away and the races become a simple matter of ‘the fastest boat wins’.

The Boys in the Boat doesn’t deeply focus on the team dynamics and the men growing in sync with each other which is an issue, focusing instead broadly on the team through the character of Joe and the overall sport and background politics through Ulbrickson. Both are such stoic men of their time that it can be hard to see through their impenetrable veneers.

Joe is a harder nut to crack as the protagonist dealing with his own self-doubt, with a love interest who practically throws herself at him early on and a friendship with Roger which seems one sided. Because of this, he often seems distant from the rest of the team and even unfriendly as he works through his own demons. In the end, we never really get deeper feeling for this whole unit of nine determined men working as one succinct unit.

On a character level by The Boys in the Boat’s finale, we are as disconnected from half of the crew as we would be just seeing an old newsreel. Despite this, George Clooney takes us on an inspiring journey through time and we can’t help but cheer for these scrappy underdogs. On a technical front, the film does hit all the right notes and even if you already know how the true story ends, The Boys in the Boat is still thrilling.

The Boys in the Boat will be in cinemas from January 4.

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