The Boys in the Boat

Directed by George Clooney and adapted from Daniel James Brown’s 2013 best-selling book of the same name, The Boys in the Boat tells the true story of the University of Washington junior varsity rowing team that defied all odds by not only beating out the school’s varsity team, but also eventually earning a trip to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Though certainly a remarkable true story, it’s just too bad the film never quite captures the emotional impact of such a remarkable feat.

Set in the depression-era Northwest, The Boys in the Boat follows the triumphant journey of Joe Rantz (Callum Turner, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore), a hardscrabble college student working odd jobs to earn enough to pay for food and college tuition. A hard-nosed self starter abandoned by his father as a teenager and whose mother died when he was young, Joe jumps at the opportunity to try out for the school’s rowing team which would not only provide room and board, but also give him enough money to pay for school.

"its focus on background and historical accuracy overshadows the importance of well-defined characters"

Via numerous (too many) sports training montages, Joe eventually makes it to the Olympics – settle down, its not a spoiler, but not after having forged an incredibly strong bond with his eight other teammates. Teammates from different backgrounds who bring drastically different perspectives to the team. There’s Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), and their assistant coach Tom Bolles (James Wolk, TV’s Mad Men) and a boatful of scrappy underdogs who eventually pull together to take on the world’s best rowers.

The film is the story of a diverse group of men who come together to overcome their challenges and showcase the power of unity through the sport of rowing. While the the story’s central metaphor of working as a team is certainly admirable, the movie struggles mightily with its one-dimensional characters, though not totally the fault of screenwriter Mark L. Smith, (The Revenant). There are just too many characters and there’s simply not enough time – nor is a creative shortcut taken – to endear the audience to so many personal stories. As a result, we never quite buy in to what the film has to say about the value of teamwork. We’re left feeling disconnected from the heart of the narrative and just want to see more rowing action.

The sports action sequences are undeniably captivating and will get more than a few fist pumps from the audience, as they successfully capture the intensity and physical demands of rowing. However, we’re never quite fully engaged, as the film assumes a level of familiarity with the intricacies of rowing that many viewers don’t possess.The Boys in the Boat

The lack of a detailed explanation or a deeper dive into the technical aspects of the sport leaves us noticing a significant leak in the storytelling. It comes close though when we watch Coach Ulbrickson and his assistant coaches as they plot and re-plot where certain rowers should be stationed in the boat. Also, the explanations of the different tasks undertaken by the eight rowers, as well as the importance of the ninth person on board, the coxswain (or navigator), are fun and fascinating little tidbits of inside information to see in action. However, not enough to right this sinking ship.

While The Boys in the Boat successfully creates a realistic landscape that mirrors the social and economic conditions of the time, its focus on background and historical accuracy overshadows the importance of well-defined characters. As a result we’re left adrift in a weak narrative that fails to keep us invested. Clooney and Smith’s efforts to depict such a significant moment in history is undermined by their neglect of the human elements that should be at the forefront of any compelling sports underdog story. A truly fascinating story, just one that's not very well told.

2/5 stars

Film Details

The Boys in the Boat

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
124 mins
: George Clooney
Mark L. Smith
Joel Edgerton; Callum Turner; Peter Guinness
: Drama | Sports
Based on the Incredible True Story.
Memorable Movie Quote:
Theatrical Distributor:
Official Site:
Release Date:
December 25, 2023
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:

Synopsis: A 1930s-set story centered on the University of Washington's rowing team, from their Depression-era beginnings to winning gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.


The Boys in the Boat