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'The Boys in the Boat' Review

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December 15, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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I’m just as surprised as you are. Four stars? For a George Clooney movie? About rowing? In 2023? It’s such an unlikely outcome that I’m still in shock just as much as I was during minute one… and minute fifty… and minute one hundred. I kept waiting for this Jenga tower to come crashing down. There surely were moments where it started to falter, but then Clooney or the charismatic Callum Turner would make everything right again.

In an act of full transparency, I’ll start with what is probably the worst element of the film, which is the bookending scenes (never a good sign). We open and close with an elderly Joe Rantz sitting on a dock watching his young grandson learning how to row. These images of pain and perseverance bring him back to his college days at the University of Washington during the Great Depression, where he was living out of a broken-down car and using newspapers to plug the holes in his shoes. The corny bits of narration from the trailer are all featured in these opening segments, along with the usual visual trademarks of Depression-era poverty.

What’s more scarce than money are ways to make money, which is why Joe (Turner) and a few of his classmates try out for the university’s rowing team, as anyone who makes it gets a part-time job and a place to sleep. For Joe, hunger, both in its physical and mental form, is enough of a substitute for a lack of technical skill. But making the team is only the first hurdle. Staying on the team is the bigger challenge, and the only way to accomplish that is to win. These eight boys will go up against schools with bigger and better programs filled with kids who have had rowing passed down through generations.

Because no one would ever make a movie about a sports team that repeatedly loses (“winning gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” is literally the ending to the studio-supplied plot summary), it’s not surprising that Washington’s fortunes turned out to be considerably grander than they ever imagined. They were a bunch of boys who had nothing to their names beyond their need to survive. Clooney and writer Mark L. Smith (writer for The Midnight Sky) do well to illustrate the strength and resilience needed to succeed in such a demanding sport. Severe blisters, cramps, and overall exhaustion are not a probability, they’re a certainty.

Clooney perfects his craft as a director just as much as the boys do on the boat. It’s his biggest leap in becoming this generation’s Clint Eastwood, a name-brand director who doesn’t possess any distinct flair, yet always delivers a respectably crafted studio film. Each race is a feat of momentum and inertia, and commendably displays the strategy required in rowing, which is far more complicated than simply going faster than the opponents. Aiding that is Alexandre Desplat’s triumphant score and great sound work that details each facet of this well-oiled machine.

There’s something sweet in how committed Clooney and Smith are to the underdog sports script, even down to the slightly underdeveloped, yet fully endearing romance between Joe and his classmate Joyce (Hadley Robinson). There’s even the usual camaraderie between the boys involving them building up the confidence of the quieter member of the group. Turner is a more than capable lead, possessing what's required both physically and emotionally. Joel Edgerton also does decent service as the team’s coach, who’s up against a rock and a hard place between demanding alumni and the Nazi-hosted Olympics.

The Boys in the Boat is the type of film that would have made quite a name for itself back in the 80s and 90s. Don’t let that statement make you think it doesn’t deserve a place today, as it possesses a timeless amount of heart and soul. It’s a highly entertaining and much-needed life preserver for Clooney’s directorial career.

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