When you think of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and an underdog sports story from America about an unlikely competitor winning against the odds on Hitler’s home turf and showing up the Nazis, who do you think of? If you said
Jesse Owens “the white boys from Washington state”, you’re correct!
George Clooney’s latest film, The Boys in the Boat, is a mawkish sports story about the University of Washington’s eight-man crew team that won gold against the best rowers in the world, including Germany’s all-blonde team. Clooney is fully in his Dad Era, making movies for dads, by dads, about dads—there’s a framing device to ensure we know the central character becomes a dad—that only dads could love, but this film, especially, seems sort of like a weird “don’t forget the white dads did a thing, too!” plea.
Callum Turner stars as Joe Rantz, an almost comically down-on-his-luck engineering student at the University of Washington. It’s 1936, the depths of the Great Depression, and Joe, having been abandoned by his father, is struggling to pay his tuition. When another student also struggling with money informs him the eight-man crew team comes with a bed and a wage, Joe decides to try out for the team, despite knowing nothing about crew. A couple hundred other people have the same idea, but Joe eventually does make the team, and that’s the last we ever worry or wonder about his academic pursuits or money issues.
To his credit, Clooney and screenwriter Mark L. Smith (adapting from Daniel James Brown’s book The Boys in the Boat) convey a lot of information about rowing without ever burdening their actors with unwieldy dialogue. An especially graceful note is how Clooney handles the race scenes, introducing the different teams by their uniquely colored oars, and then trusting his audience to follow along from that visual information. This is not a sport many people are familiar with, yet he trusts people will get wrapped up in a well-shot, well-edited competition scene, and he’s not wrong. The race scenes are fun! I never understood a word the coxswain was shouting (blue butt?), but you do feel the power and speed of the rowers and boats.
To continue saying nice things, The Boys in the Boat is a very handsome film. Handsomely directed, handsomely acted—although you can practically hear Clooney shouting at Joel Edgerton to stop twinkling at the camera, Joel Edgerton is built to twinkle, let him twinkle!—and handsomely staged, this is a good-looking film. The Depression-era table-setting is borderline unintentionally hilarious as Clooney includes every cliché from soup lines to stuffing newspapers in worn-out shoes, but, well, the stereotypes exist for a reason. I can cut him some slack on that. What I can’t cope with is showing Joe living in a broken-down car, which is the step too far that takes the setting into poverty porn territory.
But class is the point, as rowing is dominated by wealthy students from Ivy League schools, and the UW team is underfunded and playing catchup against athletes who have been rowing since grade school. But they do, improbably we’re informed, win and keep winning, earning a spot on the 1936 Olympic team. They have to raise their own funds to go, naturally, and they are introduced to America as the working-class underdogs representing the little people being crushed under the boot of the Depression, and this makes them hugely popular going into the Games. Eighty years later, of course, we only remember Jesse Owens, but Clooney et al make a case for this being a gripping narrative in its own time.
Speaking of Jesse Owens, though, you better believe our scrappy rowing heroes encounter him at the Olympics. In an incredibly awkward, borderline bad taste scene, Owens (played by Jyuddah Jaymes) reminds the boys what he has to prove and who he’s proving it to: not Hitler, but “the folks back home”. One boy nods sagely as if to say, Ah yes, these are the racist times. It is a mind-boggling scene, one of three such discordant notes. The other two are when Clooney zooms in on the only Black extras in the film, as if to prove Black people were into rowing, too. Maybe! Super weird zooms, though! Almost like this film knows it has a race problem yet has no interest in meaningfully addressing it!
But certain dads will love The Boys in the Boat, a film about a time when (white) men went off to row their little boats and win the hearts of a nation, the girl back home, and grit their teeth and say nothing in the face of actual, world-shattering evil. Actually, one guy does say something. The best moment in the film is when one of the American rowers snarks “remember the Alamo” at one of the German rowers, who reacts with a clear “what the f-ck?” face. It’s such a sh-thead 20 year old thing to say, it injects actual humanity into these scenes and interrupts this exercise in Boomer worship of their stern, silent fathers with a reminder that the Greatest Generation were once punk ass kids, too.
The Boys in the Boat is exclusively in theaters from December 25, 2023.
Attached: George attends 'The Boys In The Boat' Special Screening in NYC on December 13, 2023.