‘The Boys in the Boat’ Review: Taking Up Oars

“The Boys in the Boat,” directed by George Clooney, is an old-fashioned movie about old-fashioned moxie. Based on a section of Daniel James Brown’s 2013 nonfiction book of the same name, and set to a plucky score by Alexandre Desplat, it’s a handsome, forthright flashback to a high water point of the Depression Era when the University of Washington’s junior varsity crew padded all the way to the 1936 Olympics. Approximately 300 million radio listeners tuned in to hear live sporting news from Berlin, and the film cuts to what feels like all of them rooting on these tall, ruddy and heroic amateurs. I’ve never seen a movie with this much applause — the extras must have been as winded as the athletes.

The United States eight-man rowing team had won every gold medal since 1920, but the screenwriter Mark L. Smith glides past that fact to emphasize that these particular boys were at a disadvantage. Unlike the prestigious Ivy League squads, the Huskies were mostly middle and working class landlubbers who’d only taken up oars to pay for school. Our lead, Joe Rance (Callum Turner), trudges to campus from a Hooverville; later, the coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), pokes around his crew’s lockers to count the holes in their shoes. Before a pivotal regatta, a radio sportscaster (John Ammirati) bellows the obvious theme: “A clash of character! Old money versus no money at all! It’s a boat full of underdogs representing an underdog nation!”

The script is as subtle as a bonk on the nose, and the editing repeats every beat twice-over in broad pantomime and meaningful looks. Despite some tender philosophizing from the racing shell designer George Pocock (Peter Guinness), we never quite get an insight into exactly how these eight undergrads melded into a winning team. The main oarsmen, Don Hume (Jack Mulhern) and Rance, rarely speak, and the others hardly register. Thank heavens for Luke Slattery as the coxswain Bobby Moch, who straps on a hands-free leather and metal megaphone — a contraption that, to modern eyes, looks like a torture device for mumblers — and instantly screams some life into the picture.

With the female characters sidelined to one-note cheerleaders, Clooney puts his focus on the fantastic production design. The pennant budget alone must have cost a fair penny, but he even includes an assembly line scene of those pennants being made. Just as faithfully, Clooney acknowledges how little politics registered to these jocks. In Berlin, they become passingly acquainted with Jesse Owens (Jyuddah Jaymes), but when Adolf Hitler (Daniel Philpott) pops up in a Seattle newsreel, no one bothers to boo.

So it’s for our sake that the film gives us the Führer pounding his fist in fury that the Yanks might one-up Germany in his moment of triumph — and for our kicks that the cinematographer Martin Ruhe bests a shot from Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary “Olympia,” a dynamic redo of Moch heaving in and out of the frame, his megaphone eclipsing everything but his hair and lips.

The Boys in the Boat
Rated PG-13 for cursing and cigarettes. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes. In theaters.

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