By John Hanlon
“It’s about the boat.” So states Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) in the new drama, The Boys in the Boat. That sentiment may seem like a superficial one but for readers of the Daniel James Brown book of the same name, that concept is far more nuanced than it sounds. The boat isn’t just an idling vehicle sitting in the water. The boat is the vessel that rowers connect on; it’s the instrument they practice on, they sweat on, and they strive on so deeply that when they are rowing on it, it feels like they are connected to the boat.
The film and the nonfiction book it was based on focuses on the 1936 rowing team at the University of Washington. The center of both stories is Jack Rantz (played in the feature by Callum Turner), a student who views rowing as an opportunity to remain at school.
Early on, Rantz faces a dfficult financial reality: he needs to find a job or he will be kicked out of school. Being selected for the rowing team means two things for him: a guaranteed part-time job and cheap housing. He's never rowed before but that doesn't matter. What matters to him is getting on the boat and staying on the team.
Director George Clooney seemingly recognizes all of the major elements needed in telling the uplifting story about the rowing crew and the obstacles they faced during their tough season together. From Rantz’s humble beginnings (as compared to the other rowers) to the school’s status as an underdog (as compared to opposing teams where many students had been rowing most of their lives), Clooney hits all of the right notes but never as sharply as one would hope.
The screenplay by Mark L. Smith tries to fit in a number of different elements here, leading to a bit of a crammed narrative. For instance, a budding romance between Rantz and Joyce Simdars (Hadley Robinson) sometimes distracts from the focus on the team and their own struggles.
The first two acts do lead to a thrilling final act through and Clooney knows how to create tension despite the seemingly inevitable conclusion.
There are moments here that don’t work as well as they could’ve, including Rantz feeling out of place on the team right before a momentous race. However, there are other elements that really hit the mark including a dour turn related to the financial support behind the team (especially considering their more financially-secure collegiate rivals) and a dire health situation faced in the third act. Clooney makes the most of these major obstacles and really shows the struggles the team faced even outside the boat.
There are other times during the feature when it feels like Clooney only hints at details that would’ve made the feature stand out more. From the setting of the Great Depression to Rantz’s troubled relationship with his father, there are elements here that — if delved into more deeply — could’ve enriched the story.
However, Clooney manages to get some of the biggest moments well, doing a great job directing the riveting and suspenseful rowing sequences and really showing the obstacles in the way during the pivotal third act. There are some missed opportunities in The Boys in the Boat but the film hits its mark when it counts.
The Boys in the Boat arrives in theaters nationwide on Christmas Day.