‘The Boys in the Boat’: This real-life sports story is an inspirational cinematic cruise

“The Boys in the Boat” (2023) – “The boys, that boat, it’s all I got.” – Joe Rantz (Callum Turner)

It’s the height of The Great Depression.  Joe, a capable young man, cannot find work and frequently feels a bit useless, like the bottom of a shoe, and one of his soles suffers from a quarter-size hole. 

If only he had two nickels to rub together.

Joe is a University of Washington student, but the billing department informs him that the latest tuition installment due date will arrive faster than you can say “impending doom.”

However, his fortunes, emotional and financial, change when he tries out for the University of Washington Huskies Rowing team under Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), but Joe’s chances are slim when an army of dreamers turn up for the first meeting.  Joe has zero experience, and only eight men make the team, the school’s junior squad. 

Director George Clooney and screenwriter Mark L. Smith take a senior swing at delivering this big-screen story, not only Joe’s tale but the entire team’s inspirational voyage, based on Daniel James Brown’s 2013 non-fiction novel, “The Boys in the Boat”. 

Clooney, Smith, Rantz, and the rest of the cast and crew are successful, as their 124-minute throwback sports movie feels like a 20th-century production, similar to “Hoosiers” (1986) or “Rudy” (1993), complete with fine attention on the specific athletic movements, a soaring musical score, and warm, pleasing, and dramatic cinematography of the grand events. 

For some reason, the Motion Picture Association bestowed a PG-13 rating on Clooney’s film, but this is a satisfying, family-friendly PG-vibes cruise.

“The Boys in the Boat” chronicles Joe and the team’s remarkable travels towards worldwide acclaim, which includes a prestigious international 1936 event.

The movie harbors the Huskies’ exhaustive training, a few specific races, and impending stress and challenges.  During a Dec. 11 Phoenix Film Society “The Boys in the Boat” screening, one of the society members mentioned – after the film – that Joe’s struggling relationship with his parents was a more prominent subject in the book.

In the film version, the strain with his father – who abandoned a teenage Joe years before – is explored, but in a limited fashion, just a few minutes on-screen.  Still, it is addressed in an affecting scene when Joe confronts his father, Harry (Alec Newman).  Credit Turner and Newman for churning up weighty audience empathy. 

Now, Brown’s book runs 404 pages, and the challenge with most film adaptions from best-selling works is including enough of the needed source material into a two-hour celluloid presentation.

This critic did not read Brown’s page-turning effort, but Clooney and Smith are thrifty with their limited time and seem to hit most of the needed beats.

For example, in the first act, Joe falls asleep in class due to the extensive physical demands of practice, but an admiring co-ed, Joyce (Hadley Robinson), wakes the athlete just before the irritated professor gazes in his direction. 

In only a 10-second sequence, Clooney establishes the team’s overly laborious practice schedule and Joyce’s attraction to Joe, which could blossom into romance later. 

Nicely done.

In another example, cinematographer Martin Ruhe, costume designer Jenny Eagan, and supervising art director Simon Marsay effectively capture worlds where monetary strife bludgeons the masses while prosperity surrounds the UW Rowing team.  No, Washington doesn’t overflow with an abundance of riches like the University of California, Berkeley or the Ivy League schools, but Joe, Bobby (Luke Slattery), Gordy (Joel Phillimore), and the rest of the crew are treated to the university’s beautiful surroundings, posh meals, and strolls through affluent dining halls and hotel lobbies, ones seemingly always covered with mahogany.

Meanwhile, marches in shanty towns are filtered with bleak grays and accompanied by drab textiles and long, tired faces, as the contrast between the two worlds highlights the blessing of this athletic squad, an absolute reprieve for Joe and company. 

Clooney and Smith also squeeze in a lighthearted dance hall sequence, where the men build friendships, and Joe and Joyce strengthen their connection. 

However, the one area that feels a little fuzzy is the reason for this junior squad’s vast success.  Is it pure will that overcame their have-not beginnings?  Is it Coach Ulbrickson’s ever-present guidance?  Is the crew’s coxswain, Bobby, pushing them beyond their limits?  Is it George Pocock’s (Peter Guinness) Ben Kenobi-like grandfatherly influence…and his handcrafted boat? 

Probably all the above, but it isn’t easy to pinpoint one exact cause.

Still, it may not matter in the end, when Ruhe and Clooney convey complete thrills on the water, as three filmed regattas strike intense closeups when sweat, tears (but no blood), and strain pour off the men and broader, complex captures of racing theatre between Washington and their opponents.  The film’s massive sound department pitches in, as swinging sculls frequently partner with sharp audio cracks and snaps.  You’d swear the wooden oars split in two on a half-dozen occasions.  Meanwhile, repeated drama ensues as various bows shove, strive, and dance with one another to the finish lines. 

In fact, the first race offers tighter frames more often, but later regattas showcase wider ones, from above and at water level, as Clooney and company step up the nail-biting dramatics as the stakes grow.  Well, Joe may declare that the boys and the boat are all he has, but he and the entire UW crew reached millions, a priceless gift.

⭐ ⭐⭐ out of ⭐ ⭐⭐⭐

Directed by:  George Clooney

Written by:  Mark L. Smith, based on Daniel James Brown’s novel

Starring:  Callum Turner, Joel Edgerton, Luke Slattery, Hadley Robinson, and Peter Guinness

Runtime:  124 minutes

Rated: PG-13

Image credits: Amazon Studios

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