top of page
  • Writer's picturePopEntertainment

The Boys in the Boat (A Movie Review)


Starring Callum Turner, Joel Edgerton, Jack Mulhern, Sam Strike, Alec Newman, Peter Guinness, Luke Slattery, Thomas Elms, Tom Varey, Bruce Herbelin-Earle, Wil Coban, Hadley Robinson, Courtney Henggeler, James Wolk, Chris Diamantopoulos, Glenn Wrage, Edward Baker-Duly, Adrian Lukis, Dominic Tighe, Alec Newman and Andrew Bridgmont.

Screenplay by  Mark L. Smith.

Directed by George Clooney.

Distributed by Amazon MGM Studios. 124 minutes. Rated PG-13.

As a director, George Clooney certainly likes living in the past. Of the nine films that he has helmed, seven of those were period pieces, many of them based on true stories. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind took a look at TV personality Chuck Barris in the 1960s and 1970s. Good Night and Good Luck took place during the McCarthy era of the 1950s. Leatherheads looked at the early days of football in the 1920s. The Monuments Men took place during World War II. Suburbicon was during the 1950s. The Tender Bar was about growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact his two films which did not take place way in the rear-view mirror were The Ides of March (a current-day political thriller) and The Midnight Sky (a post-apocalyptic tale.)  

The Boys in the Boat returns the filmmaker to the World War II era – specifically revolving around the leadup to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. It also is intriguing by looking at the United States in the latter years of the Great Depression. So, in theory, it should be an interesting time capsule.

Perhaps the biggest problem with The Boys in the Boat is simply this – the 1936 US crew team, which did win a Gold Medal and helped to embarrass Adolf Hitler at his own Olympics, isn’t even the most interesting or best-known American athlete during that Olympics. That would be Jesse Owens, who as a character has a few short appearances here, and who has been subject of several biopics of his own which explore this particular crossroads in history.

More to the point, to be perfectly honest, crew may be a fascinating, hard sport to compete in, but it is a pretty dull one to watch. After all, it’s like the old standup comedian said, I don’t want any part of a sport that they used to force slaves to do. And this view of rowing is coming from someone who grew up in a city in which crew is a tradition. In fact, of the four college squads which are shown to have had a chance to go to the Olympics back then, one of them was from my hometown.

In fact, George Clooney acknowledged that part of his motivation in making the film was that he felt there were no films that faithfully and excitingly captured crew as a sport and a pursuit. 

Does he remedy that problem? Probably not. But The Boys in the Boat has its moments.

Probably Clooney and his long-time collaborator Grant Heslov and screenwriter Mark L. Smith tossed their net a bit too wide. There were nine members of the crew team being watched in The Boys in the Boat. Then you have to add the coaching staff, friends, families, wives, girlfriends, fellow students, neighbors in their town, opposing teams, opposing coaches, the Olympic committee and more. There are probably like 100 speaking roles, and that’s before they even go to Germany for the Olympics and the cast of characters is multiplied.

That’s a whole lot of characters to fit into a two-hour movie, to the point that many of the characters here are basically given one-dimensional oversimplifications of their roles: The uptight rower, the supportive girlfriend, the unfeeling father, the sexy and sweet coach’s wife. (That character, while often enjoyable, also feels like an anachronism in this film. While I could probably see her acting like this in… say… the 1960s, her open sexuality and confident feminism feels out of place in the 1930s.)

These characters undoubtedly had a lot more room to breathe in Daniel James Brown’s novel of the same title, but too many people here come off as shallow. Of course, the film basically spends much of its time exploring two characters – although they even disappear from the film for chunks of time. These characters are the extremely poor oarsman Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), who has taken on the role on the team as a way of financial survival, and the gruff-but-good-hearted crew coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), who is doing all in his power to get these talented-but-unmotivated boys into the Olympics.

From the look and the pace and the subject of The Boys in the Boat (and the fact that it is being released on Christmas day), it seems likely that Clooney, et al, were hoping for some award recognition for their film. And perhaps they will, at least in the technical nominations. The film looks spectacular and realistic, from the desperate Washington state streets of the Depression to the tony halls of early academia to the self-consciously grandiose splendor of the Berlin Olympics.

The Boys in the Boat is not as good or important of a film as the filmmakers had hoped it would be, but it’s worth taking a look at.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved. Posted: December 25, 2023.


bottom of page