The Boys in the Boat
George Clooney's inspirational, old-fashioned sports drama is one of his best directorial efforts to date.
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I don’t give a crap about crew nor a rip about rowing, but I found George Clooney’s “The Boys in the Boat” (now in theaters) to be a rousing sports picture that’s earnest and old-fashioned in the best possible ways.
Clooney and his screenwriter Mark L. Smith (they previously teamed for 2020’s “The Midnight Sky”) have set their sights on Daniel James Brown’s bestselling non-fiction novel “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” (also chronicled on the PBS “American Experience” episode “The Boys of ‘36”).
We’re in the midst of the Great Depression and young men attending Seattle’s Washington University are having trouble making their tuition. This prompts a bunch of them to try out for the school’s crew team where if they’re a member they’re afforded lodging and a part-time job.
One such young man Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) jumps at the opportunity despite never having rowed before. Joe was abandoned by his father Harry (Alec Newman) at the age of 14 after his mother passed and is now living out of an abandoned car. While at school Joe studies Engineering and reunites with his childhood crush Joyce Simdars (Hadley Robinson, she played a younger version of Los Angeles Lakers owner and president Jeanie Buss on the recently-departed HBO series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty”).
Under the guidance of coaches Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton – he’s an ace at the sports stuff between “Warrior” and this) and Tom Bolles (James Wolk), Joe and his fellow Junior Boat rowers – among them Joe’s pal Roger Morris (Sam Strike), piano-playing wallflower Don Hume (Jack Mulhern), thieving Chuck Day (Thomas Elms) and their mouthy pipsqueak of a coxswain Bobby Moch (Luke Slattery) – supersede the Senior Boat. In doing so, they have the opportunity to compete against the University of California and a bunch of elite East Coast schools for their chance to participate in the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics.
Clooney has made a handsome (the sun-kissed cinematography of Martin Ruhe is something else and Tanya Swerling’s editing is appropriately frenetic/kinetic during race sequences), beautifully-scored (unsurprising from the likes of Alexandre Desplat) and well-acted movie that feels as though it could’ve been made in 1936. This is a big part of the reason I like the film as well as I do and a big part of the reason it has as many detractors as it does. Earnestness isn’t really en vogue, but perhaps it should be in this overly-cynical age? This is a vast improvement over Clooney’s previous foray into period sports pictures (“Leatherheads”) and I’d say it’s his third best directorial effort to date behind “Good Night, and Good Luck.” and “The Ides of March.”
The movie is strongest when it’s focused upon the burgeoning romance between Joe and Joyce (Robinson has a magnetic screen presence. This young lady is going places! Proof positive – she’s also currently appearing in the rom-com “Anyone But You.”) and the friendship/mentorship between Joe and George Pocock (a winning Peter Guinness), the designer and builder of the team’s shells. Turner, who’s going period again in next month’s Apple miniseries “Masters of the Air,” is a capable lead even if his bad blonde dye job is a bit distracting and his English accent occasionally interrupts his American one.
“The Boys in the Boat” should make for fine family fare this holiday season. It extols the virtues of pulling one’s self up by their bootstraps and serves as a stirring remembrance of the best of who we were and a reminder of who we could yet still become. My grandparents would’ve loved it.