The Boys in the Boat – movie review

On 14th August 1936, the US eights rowing crew did something very special at the Berlin Olympics. The Boys in the Boat is their story.

The eight, plus an alternate and a cox were drawn from working class men during the Depression era. The team was handpicked by well-meaning and decent University of Washington coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), a more than handy rower in his day. Their leader is Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), an engineering student who lived in a dilapidated car and could barely makes ends meet.
Rantz’s mother died when he was young and his father left him before he reached the age of 14. Although enrolled in uni, he struggled to find the money to pay for his tuition.

Rantz was at severe risk of being kicked out when a classmate presented a possible solution: join a rowing crew and receive a wage and board. But what Rantz didn’t realise was how stiff the competition was to be selected. But he was up for the challenge and became a member of the university’s new junior crew. Then the “heat” started intensifying even further. Rantz – who forged a close bond with boat builder George Pocock (Peter Guinness) – wasn’t the only one under pressure. The University of Washington hadn’t beaten their arch-rivals – California State – for years. So the future of the coaches, along with the crew, was on the line. What happened next was the stuff of dreams.

The Boys in the Boat is a moving underdog story, involving triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds. Even if you’re totally unaware of what happened to this rowing crew back in the day, it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. Still, I found myself heavily invested in the journey. Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) provides the screenplay, adapting a book by Daniel James Brown. At the helm is director George Clooney (The Monuments Men), who milks the emotion of the times to positive effect.

He’s aided by performances, led by Edgerton as the respectful but determined head coach; and a restrained Callum Turner, who comes into his own as Joe Rantz. Both are credible, alongside a gregarious Hadley Robinson, who plays Rantz’s fourth grade crush, Joyce Simdars. James Wolk injects personality into assistant coach Tom Bolles. Jack Mulhern is effective as the shyest member of the crew (and adept pianist) Don Hume. Sam Strike brings self-belief to cox Roger Morris. Peter Guinness acts like a father figure to Rantz, while Courtney Henggeler, as Hazel, backs her husband, the head coach. I wasn’t as sold on the casting or representation of Hitler in Nazi Germany, which I saw as somewhat clunky.

Still, the visuals of the boys bending their backs is magnificently captured, often in close up, by cinematographer Martin Ruhe (The Midnight Sky). The film’s production design by Kalina Ivanov transports us back to the period. Another highlight is the evocative score from Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water).

Clooney succeeds by injecting drama and anticipation into the historic events, bringing them to life anew.

Alex First

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