For his ninth directorial turn, George Clooney again adapts a beloved novel, this time in the non-fiction genre. With a script by long-time collaborator Mark L. Smith, Clooney takes on the award-winning real life account of a crew of Washington Olympians in their attempt to reach and triumph at the Berlin Games in 1936—The Boys in the Boat. Unlike his more recent work, the film, buoyed by the inherent charm and goodwill of its characters and story—floats.
Though not the artistic achievement that some of Clooney’s early work represented, The Boys in the Boat is a feel-good family drama that works on all cylinders.
Most of the action takes place in Seattle at the University of Washington. The junior varsity rowing men’s eight, led by coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), is a band of scrappy young men attracted to the sport by the prospect of a living wage at the height of the Great Depression. Ulbrickson is under tremendous pressure to succeed against West Coast rivals in California but, supported by his wife Hazel (Courtney Henggeler), he sets his ambitions higher, at the Olympic Games taking place the following summer in Berlin (the ones made separately famous by Jesse Owens’ triumphs in Nazi Germany).
Like the book, the film focuses on the seventh seat in the boat, which belonged to Joe Rantz (Fantastic Beasts actor Callem Turner). Joe has faced tremendous adversity in his life, being abandoned by his father at the age of 14 essentially to live on the streets and fend for themselves. Joe is handsome and hardworking, determined to get on and then succeed in the boat, while espousing boy-next-door, All American values and good looks.
The story proceeds quickly and from race to race, much like Daniel James Brown’s original material did, and is suffused with tremendous bouts of nostalgia and wistfulness for an era long gone. These “boys” were good boys, good kids that represented American scrappiness, ingenuity, and determination. With each successive race, the boys are more determined and yet maintain their humility while coming to represent hope for downtrodden communities. It is difficult to deny material, and the charming good lucks of the various actors who play the titular characters, as well as Edgerton’s soft but determined preacher-type-coach, make it even harder to turn away without smiling.
A lot of the credit goes to editor Tanya Sperling and cinematographer Martin Ruhe, who together with Clooney’s arial shots interspersed with sideshoots, create exhilarating rowing race sequences from start to finish. Against the odds and with many naysayers against them, things go well for The Boys in the Boat. While it seems hard to fathom that one could spoil a movie like this, let’s just say that the stakes get higher with each passing catch and release. Clooney and his talented team of collaborators ratchet up the intensity accordingly, with great help from a thrilling score by award-winning composer Alexandre Desplat.
But while The Boys in the Boat is a solidly enjoyable family film, a few beats are too familiar. Certain sequences during the Olympic Games in particular are trite and unnecessary, including an invented shot of a certain “Fuhrer” storming out of the podium after a match, and a hokey, imaginary conversation with Owens. The film is excellent when it hewed closely to the book it was adapted from, and on very shaky, cliched grounds when it is not.
In the end, though, The Boys in the Boat sails safely into the harbor. The heretofore obscure story is incredibly gripping and compelling. The characters are undeniably likable, as are the actors who portray them. And the simple, salt of the earth values it conveys—without longing for all aspects of the past, but only its greater values—seem particularly resonant and urgent in the increasingly self-centered culture of the present day. It is not preachy, though, it is simply there, which is why the film works almost at every level.
The Boys in the Boat is perhaps George Clooney’s own story of return to simple values, perhaps his own story of redemption as a filmmaker. For nearly ten years, almost every movie that he has directed has missed with audiences. Most of those films either tried too hard or lacked a credible emotional core. Not the case here.
In this picture, Clooney founded a charming tale and laid it out in straightforward, loving fashion. In the end, like the successful coxswain at the helm of Al Ulbrickson’s boat, he calls the shots but smartly lets his team do the work. This permits him to sail nicely into a respectable ending.
The Boys in the Boat will be released by Amazon MGM Studios on December 25, 2023