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The Boys in the Boat 2023 Movie Review
A huge bestseller when it was published in 2013, Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat” was a big hit in my circle of friends. The kind of book that gets recommended, if not passed around, pal to pal.
Set in the ’30s it was the true story of the University of Washington junior varsity rowing team who not only gunned down the storied, legacy crews of California and Ivy League colleges, but went on to the 1936 Olympics in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin. It was an adrenalized page turner, a movie waiting to happen.
Now that it’s getting to the screen, it helps to have George Clooney in the director’s chair. Although he stays offscreen, the double-Oscar-winning actor, producer and director is the biggest name on the project.
It’s his face – generally recognized as one of the coolest guys on the planet – in many of the production stills and the “for your consideration” ads targeted at industry voters this awards season. George and co-producer Grant Heslov also took part in a recent Zoom press conference for the film along with cast members Joel Edgerton, who stars as taciturn coach Al Ulbrickson; Callum Turner, who plays team member Joe Rantz; and Hadley Robinson, who lights up the screen as Joe’s sweetheart, Joyce.
Opening in theaters Christmas Day, it’s a feel-good throwback to old-fashioned moviemaking.
Taking place during the Great Depression, the scrappy kids at their oars offered glimpses of optimism and hope, rare commodities in those tough times. Rowing was a popular spectator sport in that pre-ESPN era with spectators lining river banks and in some cases following the action in train cars on the shore keeping pace with the sleek 8-man wooden shells slicing through the water.
Not just an incredibly demanding sport, rowing was a culture, too. The rowing world was made of wood – not just the glossy racing shells, but also their big-doored, high-ceilinged boat houses. You can almost smell the resins and varnish coming from the boathouse surrounded by lush forest on the Seattle campus.
As the team keeps achieving more success, the gorgeous historically recreated settings move, first to colleges on the East Coast before heading for swastika-adorned Germany. Legendary speedster Jesse Owens was another member of the U. S. Olympic team that year. During the press conference Clooney acknowledged borrowing camera angles from Hitler’s propagandist Leni Riefenstahl for the climactic Olympic rowing scenes.
“We like to use Nazis whenever we can for filming,” he joked.
The mood was light during the Zoom press conference, now that the film was in the can and the cast’s arduous training was long past.
London-born actor Turner, whose Joe Rantz is as close as the eight-man team can get to having a hero, acknowledged that he hadn’t had any previous rowing experience.
“None of us had actually. And we turn up in February, and we get on the river. And it’s snowing. And we’re all in the tight shorts and freezing cold and have no skill at being in the boat. And after about three weeks, George and Grant come down to have a look and check in on us. We weren’t in a good place. And I could see the pain behind the smile on George’s face.” “That wasn’t pain. That was fear,” corrected Heslov.
The boys on the real team hadn’t had any experience, either. For Joe and several teammates, making the team – beating the scores of hopefuls for the eight seats (plus the coxswain) – meant getting room and board at the university.
Unlike Ivy Leaguers born to the sport, the junior Huskies were rough hewn. “They were lumberjacks,” said Clooney. They came together as a team “out of necessity, out of hunger, out of having nothing else.” The actors trained together for five months. Unlike their competitors in the film in new fiberglass shells, their boat, the Huskie Clipper, was made of wood like the original. Beyond just acting, there was a sense of athletic accomplishment for Turner and his teammates.
“The hardest part about rowing is that you all have to be in complete unison,” said the actor. “There’s no, like, hiding. And if one person is out by a millimeter, the boat suffers.” For his part, Clooney faced a different set of challenges.
“The oars are, you know, 15 feet long. And then the boats are 40-some feet long. So, you can’t get close to the boats with the camera. And you can’t get side by side or ahead of the boats with your camera boat, ’cause you’ll capsize the boat. So, we had to come up with a design to get in tight enough to make it exciting. Meaning, we’re on an 80-foot arm on the boat with a 300-millimeter lens, 200-millimeter lens, down low, getting wet, trying to hold focus while you’re doing that. So, there was a ton of, like, math to try to make those things exciting.” On top of that, neither Joe Rantz or Coach Ulbrickson were especially loquacious. They were men of action rather than words. On the printed page this is no big deal. On the big screen it can be. Hadley Robinson’s feistiness along with her beauty, and Courtney Henggeler’s portrayal of the coach’s wife, Hazel, go a long way to humanizing their male partners.
In a key scene, Joe and Joyce share what Clooney called “a 1940s movie kiss” – in a train station, no less. In a way, “The Boys in the Boat” itself is a 1940s movie. It’s beautiful to look at, it wears its heart on its sleeve. It comes from an era when wholesome was cool. Standing up and cheering was nothing to be embarrassed by.
But the psychological reserve of its characters played better on the page than they do on the screen.
Despite Clooney’s assured direction and the unbreakable spirit of the cast, neither the predictable script nor the soft sentiments of Alexandre Desplat musical score produce the irrepressible “Chariots of Fire” sorts of emotions that spell the difference between good sports movies and great ones.