Director: George Clooney
Cast: Callum Turner, Joel Edgerton, Sam Strike
Released: 12 January 2024
As someone who knows very little – and up until recently cared very little – about rowing. The Boys In The Boat was not a film I thought could have worked for me. Surprisingly, I was incredibly invested in this rowing team and their future during the whole runtime of the film. During the film, we hear one of the characters say that “rowing is more poetry than sport.” This very much feels like a mission statement for the whole movie, which attempts to aesthetically portray both rowing and its effect on the characters’ lives, on the big screen.
Set in 1930, The Boys in the Boat follows Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) in his pursuit to find a job and earn a living while at university. He soon tries out for the rowing team at the University of Washington with his friend Rogert Morris (Sam Strike). Both successful in making the team, they start training under the strict supervision of coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), which will lead them to compete in the 1936 Summer Olympic games in Berlin for the United States. At the same time, the audience follows Joe’s blossoming relationship with Joyce Simdars (Hadley Robinson) as his background is also revealed.
Like many other successful sports movies, The Boys in the Boat works because it is ultimately the story of an underdog we can’t help but wanting to see succeed. They are quite literally “a boat full of underdogs” that nobody would root for, nobody but the audience who sees everything they have to go through and the unfair advantage other teams always seem to have. Unlike their opponents, for the University of Washington the race is fought on two fronts, both in the water and on the economic side of things where they are significantly at a disadvantage.
The film shows this well in the second half. Whilst the first half of The Boys in the Boat feels way too slow, the movie excels in the third act when the stakes are higher than ever. Now the fate of the world seems to be resting on the rowing team’s shoulders, or rather their oars. This is particularly relevant because the film is set in a historical moment when winning the Olympics against Germany feels as important as ever politically. The timeframe is immediately clear in the film thanks to the costume design and showing the media of the time, namely the radio and newsreel shown at the cinema. Therefore, the audience is immersed in the context of the Great Depression in the United States and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.
The film’s pacing is particularly successful, creating a tense atmosphere throughout, particularly in the last act, thanks to the brilliant soundtrack and excellent editing. Despite being able to tell where the film was going, I was still on the edge of my seat to see the result of every single competition. Admittedly, I was afraid The Boys in the Boat would easily become too repetitive because it features multiple rowing races, but they are all well done if only a little too uninspired in the directing. Its aerial shots and running commentary during the races work particularly well to convey what is happening to the audience both visually and through the script. What makes each race stand out, is the difficulty the team keeps facing
on their way as the odds continue to be significantly against them.
The Boys in the Boat does, however, have its flaws. I felt like the plot revolved around Joe’s romance a little too much, especially as this has little repercussion on the main storyline. Taking away from developing the other boys in the team further, which would have certainly been more interesting. One of the main lessons the characters have to learn is to row in a team and be there for each other when racing. Yet how can the audience care about that, if the only character we truly get an insight on is Joe?
This is perhaps why the first act is the least successful, heavily reliant on one of the characters informing us how the training is going rather than being able to see it for ourselves. Moving through training montage after montage and speeches upon speeches about rowing, we lose sight of what matters to the film: the very team that we are watching. A lot is said about what rowing is, but little of this is actually shown within the film, at least until we reach its third act.
The Boys in the Boat may not be the best film of the year but it is an enjoyable movie nonetheless, even for those of us in the audience who may not have initially been fans of rowing. The historical time and implications of it, which become clear as the characters arrive in Germany for the Olympics, is what elevates it, making it a particularly fascinating sports film. Despite various expository moments and a slow start, The Boys in the Boat almost makes you forget its flaws in its glorious and heart-warming ending.
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