The Boys in the Boat movie poster

The Boys in the Boat

In theaters December 25, 2023


124 minutes

Directed by:

Starring: , , ,

The underdog sports movie has been a fixture on movie release calendars for nearly 60 years now, starting with 1968’s The Love Bug. Since that time, some of the best movies found the underdog triumphing in the end – perhaps not always with a victory, but at least leaving with the love from fans like in 1976’s Rocky. Eventually Hollywood learned to borrow from real life. Remember the Titans shined a light on integration on a Virginia high school football team, Hoosiers followed a high school basketball team all the way to the state championships, and Miracle captured the 1980 men’s US hockey team’s unexpected success at the Olympics. So it only makes sense why director George Clooney spent years attempting to bring Daniel James Brown’s New York Times bestselling book of the same name The Boys in the Boat ( 2023) to the big screen.

Based on the true story of the 1936 University of Washington junior varsity’s rowing team ascent from nobody’s to the Olympics in Berlin, The Boys in the Boat focuses closely on Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a poverty-stricken student abandoned years earlier by his father and stepmom who tries out for the rowing team only for the paycheck so that he can put food on the table, a roof over his head, and stay enrolled in college. Led by Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) and Assistant Coach Tom Bolles (James Wolk), the two recruit and train a group of nine young kids from very diverse backgrounds to work together to pull off one of the largest upsets in Olympic history. The road isn’t easy, but with their jobs and program on the line, the two leaders need to win more than ever before.

Like many sports movies, there’s a romance component to bring in a demographic that doesn’t relate or care about sports. In this case, it’s Joyce (Hadley Robinson), a fellow student at UW, but also a former classmate and crush of Joe’s when he was in grade school. Now in their late teens, it is Joyce who is smitten with Joe.

With an amazing real-life story and a strong book to base the film upon, its frustrating that The Boys in the Boat never fully comes together. Too many storylines beyond Joe never fully play out – even Joe’s eventual marriage to Joyce is left on the cutting room floor missing out on a great opportunity to highlight what happened to him and the rest of the Olympic champion team.

Similar to the book, Clooney features Hitler and the Nazi regime that put on the 1936 Olympics, but the book dives far deeper into the evil leader’s attempts to present “a more attractive face to the world than his brown-shirted stormtroopers and his black-shirted security forces had displayed thus far,” as Brown states in his novel. With the state of the world, Clooney missed a prime opportunity to share how Hitler attempted to pull the wool over the eyes of the world. Perhaps the film’s biggest issue is that, unlike other sports underdog movies, it is very difficult to make rowing exciting. Watching oars in perfect unison may be a beautiful site, but it is also intensely uninteresting. Closeups of those oars even more so.

But let’s be clear: The Boys in the Boat (2023) isn’t a terrible movie, it’s just that many other movies have done it better – ‘it’ being a real-life story that builds excitement along the way and delivers a strong payoff in the end. Even with an Olympic win, the film never seems to hit the crescendo one expects in a movie like this. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe paints a beautiful picture – his scenes of fans dressed in suits and dresses cheering for their favorite rowing team takes you back to a far simpler time in America. The chemistry between Turner and Robinson is electric. And how can you not cheer when America beats the Nazis? It’s more that The Boys in the Boat feels like a film better suited for Disney+ than a Christmas Day release normally reserved for top-rated films.

The Boys in the Boat is streaming now on the following services:
Movie Reelist Contributor: Mark Eaton
Mark is an entertainment junkie, spending much of his leisure time watching movies, TV, or listening to any and all genres of music. Most evenings, after finishing a day of work and hanging with his wife and kids, Mark can be found in an eternal battle with his DVR, trying to clear it before another 5-6 hours of shows are recorded the next day. Still reeling from his unpaid gig for the Detroit News where he was fired for being too cruel with his American Idol recaps, Mark is thrilled to be sharing his wicked sense of humor with Movie Reelists.

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