The Boys in the Boat is an inspiring story that’s sure to please audiences but leaves a lot to be desired as the story feels surface level and breezy. Not having read the biographical novel of the same name written by Daniel James Brown, my only familiarity with this story has been the number of Washington Huskies fans who ask me if I’ve seen the film and if it’s anything like the book. While I can’t quite answer definitively, I’ll say that I’m sure it captures some of the spirit, but I imagine many will be frustrated with how the film takes few risks and how massive moments don’t feel nearly as impactful as they should.
Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) is a young student at the University of Washington studying engineering and looking for any work he can find as he lives out of a car in 1930’s Seattle. To make some extra money for his tuition, Joe, and his friend Roger (Sam Strike) try out for and make the rowing crew under coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton). During his time rowing 8-Man Crew, Joe finds a purpose and home in that boat and finds himself competing at the highest level against the best rowers in the world.
Director George Clooney clearly has an affinity for telling American stories that are rooted in the past and what people built this country into. While shining a light on the depression era here and especially focusing on the Northwestern part of the country, Clooney crafts a look and feel to the film that transports you to that time and gives you a clue as to what life was really like. Unfortunately, surface level is most we get out of this story and any time there’s a moment to really sit with something moving or heartbreaking, Clooney keeps things brisk and lighthearted. I really felt like he failed to dive deep into that time and really emphasize how rough times were for these boys.
On a story level The Boys in the Boat has a great balance of training for the rowing crew, personal lives of our main character, and then multiple races which have a ton of historical impact. Technically the races look terrific and it’s nice to spend time learning how the boats are created and how they operate at the highest level, though I did feel that there wasn’t enough emphasis on the physical demand this sport requires. There are a few moments where the boys are out of breath and you see some blisters, but Clooney never makes it feel as brutal as it really was. Similarly, the boat races never feel quite as important as they are because we really only know three of the boys to some degree.
The Boys in the Boat marks another middle-of-the-road effort from George Clooney the director as this feels like a film with lots of wasted potential in terms of the power it could’ve had. While the characters are all enjoyable to watch, I didn’t feel particularly captivated by any one performance and found Edgerton’s coach to be far from rousing. There’s also one of the worst looking Adolf Hitler’s I’ve seen in a film, but that’s more of a side thought than anything. It really feels like there’s some heart missing in the making of this film and the extraordinary events should feel more powerful than they did.
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