The Boys in the Boat Review: “A Familiar and Exciting Sports Story”

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The holiday season consists of films that hope to contend for Oscars. Meanwhile, other new releases have entirely different intentions. Certain films strive to be feel-good, crowd-pleasing stories for mass audiences. In some cases, those stories can be harder to deliver than others. When done right, they can leave audiences smiling widely once the credits roll. George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, The Boys In The Boat, hopes to be a crowd-pleasing sports story for the holiday season.

Based on the book of the same name, The Boys in the Boat (by Daniel James Brown) follows the University of Washington’s rowing team in the 1930s. The story follows Joe Rantz (Callam Turner) looking for a way out from his depression-era life as a mill worker. He finds the rowing team led by coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) as his opportunity for a better life. The story follows the team from its beginnings to winning gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This includes the numerous obstacles faced on the way to their victory.

The Human Drama Remains Compelling Throughout

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Image Credit: Amazon/MGM.

Clooney’s directing filmography has varied over the past several years. These include true stories like Leatherheads, Monuments Men, The Tender Bar, and more fantastical outings like The Midnight Sky. All those films covered varying ends of genres, delivering mixed results. In theory, feel-good true stories like The Boys in the Boat should make for perfect holiday entertainment. They aspire to make audiences smile ear-to-ear with a story that simply makes the viewer feel uplifted. The Boys in The Boat succeeds at being a feel-good film for the holidays. Its success strives from the direction under Clooney’s eye, starting with the screenplay by Mark L. Smith.

Smith’s screenplay clearly understands the “rules” of a crowd-pleasing holiday blockbuster. Viewers learn just enough about the characters and their struggles while cheering for their victories. While having not read Daniel James Brown’s book, the filmmaking sensibilities help deliver a sense old-fashioned cinematic charm. The story focuses on rousing underdog victories, with which Clooney effectively engages viewers. He makes the audience understand exactly why these outsiders will eventually become a team. They need each other for one reason or another.

This includes Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a depression-era worker simply looking for a steady job.  To avoid being kicked out of the University of Washington, he needs to join the rowing team to pay his tuition. While not breaking new narrative ground, audiences receive the right amount of information to care about Joe’s journey.  Some will find those moments of characterization to feel more simplistic than others. That character motivation could detract from some folk's viewing experience. These characters' narrative motivations can make the results feel underwhelming. Thankfully, The Boys in the Boat has something that can help viewers forgive the cliches. 

The film's biggest asset resides in its very compelling romantic subplots. When Rantz meets Joyce Simdars (Hadley Robinson), a mutual affection forms. Both characters have immediate chemistry with one another. This relationship feels real and elevates some dramatic moments, much like another relationship in the story. Al Ulbrickson’s relationship with his wife Hazel (Courtney Henggeler) plays tender. Such moments of affection remain quite compelled throughout the running time. The tenderness between characters can help some forgive the more cliched moments. 

The Stories Themes Outway the Predictability

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Image Credit: Amazon/MGM.

In these sorts of films, the cast has to avoid overshadowing each other. No performance can be bigger or broader than next. Each one expands upon the journey of Joe, and his eventual victory with the team.  He serves as the audience conduit in understanding this high-intensity rowing world. This includes the added emotional pressure on him to succeed and stay in school. Everyone helps guide Joe, and in turn, we learn about them throughout the running time.

Anyone who has seen a true-story sports movie can guess the narrative beats here. The characters will follow the same “rise-and-fall” arcs that have fueled movies time and time again. For example, Joe serves as someone who comes from a rough upbringing. From scene one, viewers can predict exactly where his journey will end. Joe’s outcome becomes apparent from as early as the film's opening prelude. Some will find that predictability easier to forgive than others. 

The Boys in the Boat plays best as a story about a group of good people on a compelling journey. The premise alone shows the boys will succeed by the time the credits roll. In their final race at the Olympics, the sequence remains thoroughly engaging and oftentimes, nail-biting. Viewers feel the tension, just like the protagonists sitting in the boat themselves. Even by knowing the outcome, we still fear for their success. Having spent two hours with these boys, viewers will want them to succeed yet, still wonder if they will. The film has spent time having us become invested in their possible success. Knowing they succeed, the ending by design will make viewers want to stand up and cheer. Some may find that safety within the narrative underwhelming. Others may go along with the more simplistic and expected story beats. 

Lots of varying genre films will arrive over the upcoming holiday season. Films such as Wonka, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, and Anyone But You (to name a few) hope to serve as empty-calorie entertainment.  While The Boys in the Boat hopes to entertain, it does have another ambition in mind. The film wants to be a rousing sports story, while also teaching viewers about a real time and unknown piece of history. While the story does not do anything new narratively, the results remain exciting. Those looking to see an uplifting true sports story should look no further than The Boys in the Boat.

Rating: 7.5/10 Specs

In Theaters December 25th, 2023. We've got the latest on movies in theaters right now.

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