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When people say “they don’t make movies like that anymore,” this is the kind of movie they’re talking about. “The Boys in the Boat,” based on Daniel James Brown's acclaimed book, is the true story of the University of Washington rowing team that won a gold medal in the Berlin Summer Olympics of 1936. Conventionally old fashioned, the film may not surprise you, but it will satisfy you. Director George Clooney understands the strength of this classic underdog story, and he knows how to tell it, with gorgeous visuals and heartfelt performances.
Rowing is an especially cinematic sport, the oars moving as precisely in sync as a Rockettes kick line over glass-smooth water, while the sunrise tints the sky a soft pink. And this story captures our attention and our sympathy quickly, with young men who came of age during the bleakest years of The Depression. They have holes in their shoes and are always hungry. They and their coach understand that the deprivation they have experienced has made them willing to do whatever it takes to escape it.
Callum Turner gives a sensitive, thoughtful performance as Joe Rantz, a kid left on his own since his mother died and his father abandoned him. He is homeless, and about to be kicked out of school unless he can pay for his tuition. There are barely any jobs anywhere, making the University of Washington's offer to financially support any man who wins a spot on the crew team alluring. Hundreds show up to try out for what the coach calls “the most difficult sport in the world.” He adds, “The average human body is not fit.” Rowers need twice the lung capacity of ordinary people. And they need to work together in “perfect unison” with the most precise coordination possible, which they call “swing.” Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) tells the team that they are not separate anymore; they are “eight separate parts of the same racehorse.”
Joe makes it onto the team, and if you’ve ever seen an underdog sports movie you know what's about to happen next. There is a training montage to show how challenging the preparation is and how hard they have to work. The images of the practices and races are exquisitely beautiful with kaleidoscopic overhead shots showing the balletic precision of the oars dipping in and out of the water 45 times a minute. We do not get to know much about any of the teammates, except that Donny (Jack Mulhern) is very shy and barely speaks, but can play “Happy Days are Here Again” on the piano. More traditional plotting occurs: The team get painful blisters on their palms, Joe falls asleep in class, the coxswain is not working out, a coach reminds the boys this is for all the people who didn’t believe in them, and a girlfriend listens intently to the radio broadcast of the race.
Joe has a pretty, vivacious classmate named Joyce (Hadley Robinson) who reminds him that he once had a crush on her when they were children. Coach Ulbrickson also has a pretty and vivacious wife named Hazel (Courtney Henggeler). This movie does not have room for the female characters to be anything but pretty, vivacious, and always supportive. Even so, this story is about the men. The stress in Joe’s relationships comes from the father who left him. When Joe sees him, understanding that his father has returned to Seattle but has made no effort to find him, the short scene between people who have no vocabulary for their feelings or any expression of regret or empathy gives us insight into the effort Joe must undertake to become the team member and the romantic partner he envisions. Joe also draws from his work with George Pocock (Peter Guinness), the artisan who handcrafts the team’s racing boats, which are called shells. Pocock and Ulbrickson give him another idea of what a man – or even a father – can be.
Clooney and screenwriter Mark L. Smith tell the story in a very conventional but sincere and compelling way, emphasizing the many obstacles faced by the team and the unlikeliness of their success. Ulbrickson puts his job on the line to bring the much less experienced junior varsity team to the Olympic qualifying race, where they compete against Ivy League athletes from wealthy families who had the resources to learn rowing from their early childhood. Soon, they face the best in the world at the Berlin Olympics, where, Hitler wanted to show Germany’s superiority. In one nice moment, as the Washington team is entering the arena, they have a brief conversation with American hero Jesse Owens, asking him if he is there to show the world what he can do. In just a few seconds, Jyuddah Jaymes as Owens adds another layer of meaning to the film, with dignity and grace, replying, “To show the people at home.” This is an old-fashioned story told in an old-fashioned way, and sometimes that is a good way to remind all of us we are better than those who didn’t believe in us.
Opens on December 25th.
Callum Turner as Joe Rantz
Joel Edgerton as Coach Al Ulbrickson
Jack Mulhern as Don Hume
Sam Strike as Roger Morris
Luke Slattery as Bobby Moch
Thomas Elms as Chuck Day
Tom Varey as Johnny White
Bruce Herbelin-Earle as Shorty Hunt
Wil Coban as Jim McMillin
Hadley Robinson as Joyce Simdars
Chris Diamantopoulos as Royal Brougham
James Wolk as Coach Tom Bolles
Courtney Henggeler as Hazel Ulbrickson
Alec Newman as Harry Rantz
Peter Guinness as George Pocock