The Boys in the Boat Movie Review

Drawing on a true story, The Boys in the Boat aims to be more than just another old-fashioned crowd-pleaser. The movie is a handsome period piece with an unforced insistence on team spirit.

But it’s also a mediocre movie parading around as Oscar bait. The film needs more stakes and more investment in its characters to deliver a reason to cheer.

The Story

George Clooney puts on his director’s hat to adapt Daniel James Brown’s 2013 book about the 1936 University of Washington rowing team. The Boys in the Boat does what any inspirational sports tale aims to do: it unites audiences behind a group of plucky underdogs and their triumph over the odds. The film doesn’t have a post-modern or irreverent bone in its body, but it still struggles to rise above merely playing on the same cliched beats as movies like Seabiscuit and Unbroken.

The story revolves around Joe Rantz, a cash-strapped student who joins the rowing team because it offers him a bed and a meal. He’s not the best oarsman on the crew, but he is a hard worker, and his steadfast commitment to the team eventually helps him regain his shattered self-regard. Along the way, the underdogs must overcome various speed bumps, including a lack of funds and a team member falling ill at a crucial time.

The film tries to build excitement, suspense and lump-in-the-throat moments with an appealing cast led by Callum Turner (Fantastic Beasts and Apple TV+’s Masters of the Air) as Rantz and Joel Edgerton as his tough coach. However, the picture never takes a full interest in its characters or their physicality. Instead, it treats obstacles as checklists to be checked off, resulting in a script that feels more like a well-worn formula than the type of movie that will truly move the audience.

The Cast

George Clooney, wearing his director’s hat for the first time in The Boys in the Boat, strives mightily to build excitement and suspense around a team of underdog athletes. Adapted from Daniel James Brown’s book, the movie tells the true story of how a group of working-class University of Washington students managed to beat out elite rivals at UC Berkeley and elsewhere.

The movie is slick and well-made, with fine work by cinematographer Martin Ruhe (Oscar nominee for The Ides of March) and editor Tanya Swerling. But it lacks the stirring underdog tale chemistry that made such films as Seabiscuit, Unbroken, and Rocky rousing Oscar winners.

In spite of some good acting from Callum Turner as Joe Rantz, the cash-strapped kid who joins the crew team for pragmatic financial reasons, and Joel Edgerton as a tough coach, The Boys in the Boat never achieves a full-throttled boil. The cast doesn’t help, with a script that suggests no real strife among the members of the rowing shell, and editing that leans heavily on broad pantomime and meaningful looks.

But there’s also some strong supporting work, especially from Luke Slattery as the coxswain Bobby Moch, who doesn’t lift an oar but is in charge of navigation and steering and arguably more integral to the success of the team than anyone else. And the boats, meticulously built and re-created by production designer Kalina Ivanov, are stunning to behold, with long, slow shots that make the film’s swooping glides through placid water look genuinely exciting.

The Visuals

The Boys in the Boat is a handsome, stirring, yet untaxing dose of underdog sports uplift. George Clooney directs from a screenplay by Mark L. Smith (Overlord, The Midnight Sky) and embraces certain period-picture conventions without a hint of irony or eager-to-please undercutting. The story of how a scrappy team of working-class University of Washington rowers beat Cal Berkeley and the elitist Harvard teams to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics is a familiar one, but this telling has a lot of heart and very little cynicism.

The film focuses on Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), who joins the crew team to earn a work-study scholarship and place to board. He becomes a stalwart member of the team alongside brawny coxswain Bobby Moch (Jack Mulhern). The movie doesn’t go too far into class differences and even if it did, it would be hard to vilify any of these men for their ambitions. Instead, the movie focuses on their moxie, which they all seem to have in spades.

The Boys in the Boat may not be as good as 1982’s Chariots of Fire, but it’s a solid entry into this genre. It’s a wholesome, old-fashioned movie with likeable characters and clear-cut goals. It also features a bit of old-fashioned restraint, with only some mild language and occasional smoking in evidence.

The Overall

The Boys in the Boat isn’t bad, but it never gets out of the shallow end of the inspirational sports movie pool. It also doesn’t do much with its premise of the US crew team from the University of Washington beating the East Coast and Ivy League elites at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany.

This is a story about working class boys from the Pacific Northwest who showed that heart and soul can beat out wealth and pedigree. It’s a familiar tale, which is why the filmmakers’ efforts to create a sense of period are admirable. The details they provide (the way the team eats together, the logistics of a photo finish, the booming “Fury Road”-style megaphones welded to the coxswains’ mouths) give the film a respectful sense of place.

But it’s hard to get invested in the story. It’s told from the point of view of a character who isn’t all that compelling, and many of the other characters aren’t even given personalities. Even the enigmatic headstrong Joe Rantz is reduced to a generic underdog who’s meant to inspire all of us.

The most interesting aspect of this film is how it focuses on the divide between Eastern and Western America at the time. In the modern era of instant information, it’s easy to forget that communities on opposite sides of the country were often culturally and economically disconnected in the 1930s. It’s a shame that Clooney’s film doesn’t do more to explore this aspect of the story.