George Clooney has been a charismatic actor for decades now, but his directorial career does leave one wanting. For every Good Night and Good Luck, an excellent film, you have a Suburbicon, not an excellent film. His newest feature, on paper, has all the potential to resonate with the masses, and some charm does come through. But it’s ultimately too bog standard to be much more than a subpar biopic.
The Boys in the Boat concerns the story of the Junior University of Washington rowing team and their journey to represent America in the 1936 Olympics, infamously held in Nazi Germany. Given particular focus are the coach, Al Ulbrickson (Joel Egerton), who was a very tough teacher unafraid to say what he thought, and Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a notable member of the team who practically raised himself from the age of 14 after being all but abandoned by his father. The film explores purpose, love (primarily through Rantz romantic interest in fellow student Joyce (Hadley Robinson)), and the importance of openness in both sport and life.
Although the definition of an underdog sports movies, there are some poignant themes woven into this specific narrative. With eight teammates and a substitute to comprise this team, not including the coaches, the script’s choice to hone in on Rantz and Ulbrickson as the leading figures was a good choice as giving them agency makes for more intimacy in a film that could easily have become cluttered. In tying Rantz’ newfound abilities as a rower with the struggles of his early life – and the toxic masculine actions of bottled up feelings that have come with said struggles – we get a wholesome anecdote about openness with this story. Just as we have to be open with our feelings in order for a team to function, so too must we be open in order to get the best out of life. In that sense, the rowing team’s strides to obtain the gold is as much a symbolic victory as a narrative one.
Yet the methodology used to bring these admirable observations to the foreground can be rather cloying. The score consists of saccharine pianos and string music to heighten and romanticise the scenes of Rantz and Joyce’s budding love or of the thrill of playing sport with the lads. The use of wide angles and shots may showcase the synchronicity of the rowers as they compete, but it also feels trite in its aims – to demonstrate the potential that can be reached by these hard working guys. All filmmaking is at least somewhat manipulative in order to generate emotional responses from audiences, but filmmaking art comes from the earnestness behind said manipulation. The techniques on display in The Boys and the Boat are so obvious, redundant even, that we become aware of the manipulation, and thus lose investment, even if the passion behind the work is genuine.
The intensity of the competition is also lost through these efforts. In 2021 we got another rowing film – Lauren Hadaway’s The Novice, a criminally underrated gem that was also one of 2021’s best films. That movie was more about physical and psychological destruction through the need to be perfect than it was about winning medals, but it conveyed the gruelling physical effort of the sport through its intense close ups and chilling sound design. The Boys in the Boat does use close ups, particularly in the final competition, but it is otherwise more concerned about capturing the size and scale of the boat, as well as the supportive crowds, than it is with the psychological elements that go into making the perfect team. This is not to say that all rowing films should follow the example of The Novice, as these are different films that happen to both be about rowing. However, through the redundancy of the direction and filmmaking efforts, we rarely ever feel as though the competition is a hard fought battle, as it is treated more as a distanced spectacle.
It’s a pity to see as the performances are generally solid, Turner brings a vulnerability to his street tough character where Egerton brings a grit to his jaded one, creating performances that balance each other out well. Peter Guinness is especially great as the team’s boat designer, whose gentle wisdom acts as a good counterbalance to Ulbrickson’s tough as nails approach. But the formulaic arc of the story once again undercuts this, resulting in emotional beats that fail due to their predictability. This includes a melancholy to the Olympic scenes that is not fully tapped into, as the men competing in these sports for their respective countries may ultimately be facing each other again, this time on battlefields in the impending World War Two, but perhaps that is another film for another time.
The Boys in the Boat will certainly, and understandably, have its fans. Its heart is in the right place, and its admiration for its historical subjects is abundantly clear. But it is too mawkish in its conveying of sentiment, and far too generic in construction to be anything more than a by the numbers sports biopic. Like the paint-jobs on the boat, it follows the grain, and glides along the surface, never making a big enough splash.
Director: George Clooney
Writer: Mark L. Smith (Based on The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown)
Stars: Joel Egerton, Callum Turner
Runtime: 124 minutes