George Clooney does it again as he brings Washington’s 1936 underdog rowing team to the screen in The Boys in the Boat.
Being a Kentucky native, I’m always excited whenever I hear that Clooney is directing a new film. Watching the film is how I spent my Thanksgiving evening. It was my first Thanksgiving weekend watching a new Clooney film since 2005’s Good Night, And Good Luck. The University of Washington rowing team competing in the 1936 Summer Olympics and winning Gold is a true underdog story. Most of us have only ever heard about Jesse Owens sticking it to the Nazis during those games with his track and field heroics. In any event, Clooney gives this underdog squad a long overdue narrative feature. That’s not to say anything about the filming challenges that come with filming on the water.
Clooney’s direction of this period picture is classically old-fashioned. It isn’t surprising to say the last but this is what I love about Clooney as a filmmaker. His work feels old school in so many ways. While the film would have probably received a Best Picture nomination in the 1980s, 1990s, or early 2000s, the Academy’s vibe has changed so a Best Picture nomination is unlikely. Honestly, it falls just outside my top 25 films of the year but it was also a late contender when much of my list had already been decided. But anyway, you cannot go wrong with The Boys in the Boat this December if you’re looking for an underdog story.
Screenwriter Mark L. Smith bases his book on the best-selling non-fiction book by Daniel James Brown. It’s the inspirational story of the aforementioned 1936 University of Washington rowing team. This team was the junior varsity team so it was highly unlikely they would ever compete in Berlin. And yet, they took on the elite rowing teams in US colleges before earning the right to represent Team USA. All the odds were stacked against them, even in Berlin, but somehow they managed to pull off the victory and win Gold. No wonder why it drew Clooney’s attention! Until the 2013 book came around, their historic win largely fell off the radar.
Abandoned by his family, Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) is doing what he can to get by. Everything changes when he decides to apply for a spot on the university rowing team. Money is hard to come by during the Great Depression. Making the team would come with food, lodging, and the necessary funds to pay school tuition. However, Joe is not the only one who shows up to win a spot on the team coached by Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) and Assistant Coach Tom Bolles (James Wolk). There are hundreds of other students wanting the nine spots but they manage to see something in Joe. It’s one thing to say that he makes the team and the rest is history but that would be such a sports cliché. What happens next is not so simple because this rowing squad needs some time before they start winning.
This particular underdog story is one of the heartwarming tales to come out of the Great Depression in the years prior to the start of World War II. The film is different from most on-screen sports underdog stories because of the conditions that necessitated their push towards victory. Having a spot on the rowing team helped to keep these kids in college. Their 1936 win showed that people did not need to come from rich families to win a Gold Medal. They weren’t even the team that was expected to take on the “rich, fraternity kids” in Clooney’s words. No, they had to take on the UW seniors first. The rule-makers wanted to change the game right after they won the right to represent Team USA. This forced them to raise the funds.
I think rowing fans will appreciate the film. Clooney and company make sure the rowing feels authentic. They shot the film in order so that we can see the teammates getting better race by race. Taking this route works in the film’s advantage. I want to give credit to Clooney, cinematographer Martin Ruhe, and editor Tanya Swerling–let alone the actors–for making the rowing exciting on screen. Filming on water isn’t easy and getting the close-ups might be easier in film than watching a rowing competition during the Olympics. The fact that they pull it off is all the better.
Alexandre Desplat handles composing duties. Desplat rises up to the challenge by delivering an epic score that also elevates the film. You would never have known that this was Desplat’s first time composing a sports movie score!
This quote from Clooney really stands out in the production notes. It might not feel this way right now, especially for myself and many Jewish friends feeling isolated and pushed away from spaces due to antisemitism. That’s not to say anything of the MAGA cultists wanting an authoritarian back in the White House. I’ll let my fellow Kentucky native have the last word.
“We forget that we are all in this stew together and our differences really aren’t that much and there aren’t that many,” Clooney says. “Ninety-nine percent of us get along every day and really wish the best for one another and try to work it out. I think that this film reminds us that we are all in this together, and we’re actually on each other’s sides.”
DIRECTOR: George Clooney
SCREENWRITER: Mark L. Smith
CAST: Joel Edgerton, Callum Turner, Peter Guinness, Jack Mulhern, James Wolk, Hadley Robinson, Courtney Henggeler, Sam Strike, Thomas Elms, Luke Slattery, Bruce Herbelin-Earle, Wil Coban, Thomas Stephen Varey, Chris Diamantopoulos