The Boys in the Boat: Slow and Steady, But Still Enjoyable

25/01/2024

Daisy Couture (she/her) reviews George Clooney's latest cinematic release

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By Daisy Couture

As a new member of the University of York Boat Club, one who has yet to shake off the shiny new feeling of sitting in an ‘eight’ for the first time, it’s no surprise that I was eager to drag my friends to the cinema to watch The Boys in the Boat.

George Clooney’s latest directorial project depicts the true story of the University of Washington’s junior men’s crew qualifying for (and ultimately winning) the 1936 Berlin Olympic games.

The action kicks off when the University announces that their new junior rowing team will be awarded with financial benefits and living quarters – a hard sell for working-class protagonist Joe Rantz (Callum Turner). In fact, this appears to be the motivation for the majority of students choosing to undertake the rigorous training program. Yet, in the end, only eight boys can be selected. Among them are Rantz, his best friend Roger Morris (Sam Strike) and the slightly eccentric Dom Hume (Jack Mulhern).

Coached by the stoic, level-headed Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), the boys undergo a years’ worth of training in the lead-up to the Olympic games, although the real timeline spanned three years. Interspersed by various winnings in a couple of low-level races, and the Poughkeepsie Regatta – which earned them their Olympic place – the film does a good job of depicting the trials and tribulations of university rowing. Think early mornings, blisters, aching joints, bouts of vomiting, and utter physical exhaustion. Ulbrickson, with the help of coxswain Bobby Moch (Luke Slatterly), puts the crew through their paces in the months before the big event.

Finally, using their characteristic technique of starting slow and outsprinting the competition, the boys win the men’s eight’s final, taking home the Olympic gold for the USA.

You would be forgiven for assuming that such an exciting story would give rise to an equally exciting film. However, The Boys in the Boat falls ever so slightly short.

The action is almost methodical, as are the roadblocks that the crew faces – all of which feel too easy to overcome. The backlash that Ulbrickson faces for his decision to send a junior boat to the Olympics doesn’t feel as severe as it likely would have been. In reality, investors in the school and varsity team were incredibly irate and the decision put Ulbrickson’s job on the line; however, this doesn’t feel all that cinematically dramatic. Later in the film, Rantz loses his temper and gets thrown out of the crew, but only temporarily – and his repentant speech doesn’t pack the inspirational punch that was deserved.

In between all the rowing we are offered glimpses into Rantz’s personal life, but these, too, feel contrived. His romantic relationship with Joyce Simdars (Hadley Robinson) is somewhat glossed over and underdeveloped. The same can be said of Rantz’s tenuous relationship with his father, who abandoned him as a teenager. Harry Rantz (Alec Newman) reappears in Seattle before the Poughkeepsie Regatta and the pair have a brief conversation, but once again, it feels as though this dynamic could have been developed further. Granted, the film’s primary focus is on the build-up to the Olympic race, but it would have been nice to feel more invested in the protagonist’s life outside of rowing.

Perhaps I’m being a little harsh. After all, this is a true story, and there is only so much artistic licence that can be taken. We know from the beginning what the end result is. But maybe that’s the problem; the story is sometimes played out in such a formulaic, unexceptional way that it’s difficult to get too excited about it.

Yet, despite all of this, I still enjoyed The Boys in the Boat. It seems obvious, but scenes that were solely action-focused were by far the film’s strongest elements. Both the Poughkeepsie Regatta and the Olympic final were filmed expertly, and ran for an optimal time; choppy, chaotic shots intertwined with aerial shots of the boats side-by-side worked well to create a sense of building tension.

I also enjoyed watching the friendship bloom between Rantz and boatmaker George Yeomans Pocock (Peter Guiness); the former begins to help the latter shave down, paint and varnish the crew’s Olympic boat, the ‘Husky Clipper’. During these sessions, Pocock bestows life lessons and general advice on Rantz; it ends up as one of the most touching relationships in the film.

Overall, The Boys in the Boat is a sweet and steady film. It details an incredible story in a slightly methodical (and dare I say, at times, predictable) fashion, but it left me with a pleasant sense of satisfaction. Most of you will also be pleased to know that you do not need any knowledge or enjoyment of rowing to find this film entertaining. So if you have a spare two hours with nothing to do, and you and your friends want a nice little feel-good film, then this may be the one for you.