Back in the mid-1930s, the University of Washington put together a junior varsity eight-man team for rowing crew. Since this was back in the Great Depression, U-Dub was severely underfunded and most of the young men who tried out for the team only did so because they had no other way to pay for tuition (or anything else). Eventually, this JV team — not the varsity team, but junior varsity — from a second-rate college was chosen to compete at the national level. They went from there to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, taking the gold medal while Hitler himself was in attendance to watch the German team take third behind Italy and the USA.
So here’s The Boys in the Boat, in which director/producer George Clooney (alongside producing partner Grant Heslov and screenwriter Mark L. Smith, adapting the nonfiction book by Daniel James Brown) dramatizes the full story of these Seattle hometown heroes. Even though the film was actually shot in the UK for admittedly valid reasons. I digress.
To start with the positives, the film makes for a timely underdog story. It’s a movie about overcoming adversity through persistence and work ethic, but the film is careful not to downplay luck as a factor. There’s due consideration toward the candidates who washed out, and the many candidates who were qualified but didn’t make the cut for whatever reason. It’s important to add that even as our star athletes keep notching up victories, the plot never lets up the pressure on them, finding all manner of systemic and political ways to keep the U-Dub JV team as the underdog.
Hell, we even get an honest-to-goddamn crowdfunding montage in which the team has to appeal to the public for raising the necessary money to get to Berlin. That whole sequence wouldn’t look out of place in a movie set in the modern day. And this wasn’t even an invention of the filmmakers, that really happened. Kinda depressing how little has changed in the past 90 years, isn’t it?
Speaking of which, the film did apparently hew pretty closely to what really happened, so chalk that up as another point in the movie’s favor.
As a sports movie, it’s fantastic. The race sequences are superbly shot and scored and edited. We can easily see and hear what we need to know about the sport. The film totally sells eight-oar crew as a sport that demands god-like fitness from every single participant. Most importantly, the movie makes a big fucking deal about how the sport demands flawless cooperation from every single person on that boat. Down to the last fiber of wood on the shell, every part of that boat has a function and every last piece has to operate in perfect sync.
The film does a great job of illustrating who and what these characters are as members of a rowing crew. It’s outside the boat where we start running into problems.
The big overarching issue here is that while the movie takes great pains in showing the teamwork between characters, we don’t get much in the way of camaraderie. There should be a strong sense of brotherhood between these young men who depend so much on each other and they’ve gone through so much together, but we don’t see nearly enough of that. Sure, we get a couple of songs as a kind of shorthand — most notably the University of Washington fight song and “Ain’t We Got Fun” — but it’s nowhere near enough.
A huge chunk of the problem is that the film wasn’t built to be an ensemble picture. With the minor exceptions of the socially awkward gentle giant Don Hume (Jack Mulhern) and the loose cannon coxswain Bobby Moch (Luke Slattery), barely anyone on the team is given much in the way of character development or screen time. I suppose there’s also Roger Morris (Sam Strike), but he’s only there to get our protagonist on board and he pretty much drops off the map shortly after.
Said protagonist would be Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), who was abandoned as a teenager by his family and went on to be an engineering student at U-Dub, up until he tried out for the rowing team to make ends meet. Rantz is our central focus through most of the film, and Turner plays him like a block of wood. No charisma, no range, no appreciable development arc, this lead character is just plain boring.
As if to further prove the point, we’ve got Hadley Robinson on hand as Rantz’ love interest. As a reminder, Robinson is also in Anyone But You, another movie currently playing in theaters, in which Robinson does a delightful job at playing a romantic scene partner/comic relief. (Also, if you haven’t seen Moxie yet, why the hell not?!) But I’m sorry to say that in this movie, Robinson’s dialogue is worthless, her role as the spectator viewpoint character is redundant, and the chemistry isn’t there because Turner is fucking inert. Robinson’s stuck in a rut with this role, she’s giving everything she can, and she’s going nowhere fast. It’s painful to watch.
Then we have Courtney Henggeler, the film’s other noteworthy female actor. She plays the wife to Head Coach Al Ulbrickson, here played by Joel Edgerton. This romantic pairing is far more effective, in large part because Henggeler has the strength and charisma to plausibly support her husband through the stress of coaching a team of Olympic hopefuls. It certainly helps that Edgerton is playing well within his established wheelhouse, so his scene partner has something to work with.
But even then, Edgerton doesn’t really sell any kind of deeper bond between the coach and the rowers. And if there’s any indication that Ulbrickson is anything other than a rowing coach, those glimpses are few and far between.
The Boys in the Boat does a stellar job making the case for why eight-man oar is an underappreciated sport, and the movie makes a compelling argument for why the 1936 Olympic victory was a huge achievement in ways that remain timely. But putting a heavy emphasis on teamwork while centering the entire plot around a single main character was a fatal error. And the single main character is pathetically miscast, which makes it even more of a dealbreaker.
I can give it a home video recommendation for the racing scenes, but Clooney really should’ve made a documentary instead.