Film Review | A Story Of Untiring Efforts

Based on the best-selling book about the inspirational true story of the 1936 University of Washington rowing team that competed for gold at the Summer Olympics in Berlin.

Books and movies have always remained my very first buddies and my companions since my childhood. I can describe them as being my best friends since I got to know how to read and watch and to understand them both. Both have not only inspired me, but also empowered me during all the stages of my life.

Whenever I got attracted to the initial poster of a new movie, the timeline starts at that very moment for it to be released and to be watched. The waiting moments always remained delightful as it starts my brief journey to explore all the significant things related to that particular movie. The Boys in The Boat is the one movie, I waited for a long time and post its release, watched it and I will be sharing my experience on this movie.

 A 1930s-set story centered on the University of Washington's rowing team, from their Depression-era beginnings to winning gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The story begins in Seattle during the Great Depression. Engineering student Joe Rantz (an excellent Callum Turner, EMMA., 2020) is behind on his tuition and has had no luck securing work. We learn Joe has been on his own for years, and has remained focused on his education despite growing up in such poverty where he frequently goes without meals and uses folded newspapers to keep dirt and moisture out of the hole in his shoe sole. His buddy Roger (Sam Strike) informs him of crew tryouts, and a spot on the JV team comes with a job and stipend. No-nonsense coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) isn't much for motivational speeches and lets the rookies know most won't survive the training to claim one of the eight seats on the boat.

Contradictory arguments can be made that director Clooney either took on too much of the story, or not enough. The result is a middling movie about an incredibly inspirational story of underdogs reaching the highest levels of achievement. Included here are only brief glimpses of the personal life of Coach Ulbrickson and his pertinent past, the motivation and wisdom of boat maker George Pocock (screen vet Peter Guiness), and the blossoming romance between Joe and Joyce (up and coming Hadley Robinson, LITTLE WOMEN, 2019). However, the biggest gap here is the connection and camaraderie between Joe and his teammates. The importance of working together "as one" is preached, but we aren't privy to how this happened so quickly. Skimming over this is the film's major flaw, as that bond is the key to their growth and success. By the end of the film, most will only recall Joe's name and two or three other faces on the team.

The racing scenes on the water were surely challenging to film, and come across as realistic, even though we know these are actors and not world class athletes. The rich versus poor element is touched on, as are the politics which, yes, even existed in sports 90 years ago. Initially it's the newcomers against legendary coach Ky Ebright (Glenn Wrage) and his favoured team from Cal, and then it becomes the blue-collar Washington boys against the Ivy League elites before heading to Berlin. The Olympics give us swastikas, a cheesy meet between the boys and Jessie Owens, and Daniel Philpott reprising his portrayal as Hitler from "The Crown", only with more outlandish mannerisms.

The radio broadcasts provide a nostalgic look of how challenging it was to keep up with things during the era, and the newsreels are another nice touch. For those who have never been part of a crew, the term coxswain is likely a new one, and Clooney includes actual photos of the team over the closing credits. The memorable quote is "We were never eight, we were one", but for some reason director Clooney thought it a good idea to have a lame framing device set in more modern times around this historic tale. Just to share some background or the research done on this movie.

My friend recommended the 2013 best-selling non-fiction novel from Daniel James Brown, and it was truly fascinating to read such an inspirational story around the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Of course, we all know the Jesse Owens story, yet somehow the remarkable and unlikely tale of the University of Washington crew team never received the publicity it earned. 

Director George Clooney and screenwriter Mark L Smith have attempted to reach a wider audience by adapting Brown's book for the big screen. A serendipitous set of events led to the story even being recorded, as Judy Rantz Willman just happened to have Daniel James Brown as a neighbor, and eventually persuaded Brown to visit her father, who was in hospice care. What he thought was a social visit, she saw as a book about to be written. His initial skepticism evaporated quickly, when Joe began sharing his story. In Joe's remaining couple of months of life, Brown met with Rantz several times to begin creating the outline for the book. He then met with the families of the other crew members, followed by two years of further research, aided by Judy Rantz. The eight were amazing people, accustomed to hardship and personal challenges.

The Boys in the Boat is a classic underdog story powered by the oars of a rowing team from Washington University during the Great Depression. They defy odds, poverty, and personal demons on their way to fight for Olympic gold in Hitler's Berlin in 1936. George Clooney, as director, steers this true story with a very firm hand. Worth watching!