Director – George Clooney – 2023 – US – Cert. 12a – 123m
Based on a true story. A group of students become the rowing team who compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics – out in UK cinemas on Friday, January 12th
Washington State, the mid-1930s. Engineering student Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) can barely afford to live, sleeping in an abandoned, wrecked automobile at night and faced with University fees he can’t pay during the day. Desperate for some – any – work that pays enough to help him get by, he is encouraged by fellow student Roger Morris (Sam Strike) to sign up for the rowing team. Only nine people can ultimately be chosen for the team (eight plus a reserve), and to get there all applicants must undergo a rigorous trial process so that coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton from Master Gardener, Paul Schrader, 2022, and much else) and his team can select the best men for the job.
It’s backbreaking work, and against all odds, both Rantz and Morris make it into the team. Curiously, the film starts off as being about the two of them, but as the narrative progresses, the focus on Morris fades as the emphasis shifts both to Rantz and the whole eight-man-strong team.
With his engineering knowledge, Rantz, effectively orphaned since being abandoned by his father whose carpentry business failed under the economic onslaught of the Depression, is the only member of the team to take an interest in the craftsmanship behind and construction of the boats themselves, something he’s encouraged to do by ageing boat-builder George Pocock (a role invested with considerable gravitas by Peter Guinness) who uses the evenings when, for example, the pair are sanding down the hull, to get Rantz to talk about his hopes and fears in sessions which effectively function as a form of therapy for the young man.
After a poor start, and a change of coxswain when Coach Al brings in the risk-taking Bobby Moch (Luke Slattery), the initially ragtag group of eight slowly learn how to work as a single machine; they effectively take on three different sets of opponents one after the other. First they have to prove themselves as the junior team against the older, established University of Washington teams, then against other varsity rivals such as Cal and finally against Germans when the Junior team’s ascendency causes them to represent the US at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Unlike the other American teams, the poverty of Rantz, Morris and their fellows means they are taking part in the sport not for its own sake but as a means to economic survival, since it provides them with a roof over their head and a basic payment, both of which they would otherwise be without. This stands in marked contrast to the more privileged types on the rival university teams, who aren’t doing it as a means to survival, more out of a recreational love of the sport. The script’s homing in on the character of Rantz and his financial needs effectively explores this, and gives the film a certain appeal it wouldn’t otherwise have against the background of today’s cost of living crisis.
For good measure, the piece throws in a love interest for Rantz in the form of girl engineering student Joyce Simdars (Hadley Robinson), who counters the fact that she’s not given all that much to do – the film is very much set in the male-dominated world of the 1930s – by mustering all the winsome charm of a Meg Ryan girl-next-door type, so that you come way from the film with a very strong impression of her. I imagine the movies are going to see a great deal more of this actress in the coming years.
As for the 1936 Olympics, complete with Nazi banners on display and Adolf Hitler in attendance, the film doesn’t really skirt around history and the significance of what was going on, but at the same time, it doesn’t really get into it either (and why should it – it’s a film about competitive sports, about boat racing). Because you know the atrocities this terrible regime ;later perpetrated, there’s an inevitable unease to the whole event, but the film wisely avoids trading in that or sensationalising it – a wise choice by all concerned.
I came to this film not really expecting anything, but it’s a great underdog story. Director Clooney seems genuinely fascinated by both the process by which a group of disparate individuals can be moulded into a single team working together as one and the poverty which drives the likes of Rantz and Morris forward to ultimately triumph over their more privileged counterparts who lack their financial imperative and resultant drive. The film does everything it needs to, sweeping the audience along with its extraordinary story; you’ll be captivated whether or not you have the slightest interest in rowing or team sports. In short, a film that may not look like much from the outside, but worth taking a chance on because once you get in there, there’s something about it while will have you completely hooked throughout.
The Boys in the Boatis out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, January 12th.