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The Boys in the Boat, from George Clooney

Directed by George Clooney, this period rowing drama is the kind of unfussy medium-budget prestige pic Hollywood rarely makes anymore. Photo: MGM
We talk about how some movies traffic in nostalgia — how they impeccably recreate certain periods and depict those worlds with a soft glow that might make you want to spend a couple of hours there. But a movie’s nostalgic thrust can lie beyond its story, too. Set in and around Seattle in 1936, George Clooney’s The Boys in the Boat does a perfectly respectable job evoking the sights and sounds of the Great Depression and the tense period before the start of World War II. But the real sense memory one gets from watching the film is of a more recent vintage. Once upon a time, in the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s, the world was full of movies like The Boys in the Boat – moderately ambitious and ennobling period pictures that came out and had their time in theaters before settling on the narrow VHS shelf of your grandparents’ TV room. I took such movies for granted back in the day, but I must admit I miss them now.
That maybe sounds like a back-handed compliment. It’s not. In adapting The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown’s 2013 history of the 1936 University of Washington men’s rowing team, Clooney and screenwriter Mark L. Smith (Overlord, The Revenant) fully embrace certain period-picture conventions without trepidation or eager-to please undercutting. This was an unlikely group of working-class novices who made it all the way to the Berlin Olympics. The film is an unshowy but slick underdog sports picture, fluidly told and elegantly mounted. It’s about rowing, for chrissakes; it doesn’t have a post-modern or irreverent bone in its body, and for that, we can be at least a little grateful.
The narrative is framed by images of an elderly man in the present day watching young rowers and thinking back to his youth. Lilting orchestral music (by Alexandre Desplat, outdoing himself) accompanies these recollections of the days when, as an impoverished engineering student, Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) joined his college’s rowing program because he was promised a job if he made the team. The film highlights the contrast between Rantz’s grim, gray circumstances — he lives by himself in a burned-out car and stuffs his hole-filled shoes with paper — and the rolling hills and wood-paneled halls of his university, not to mention the placid, sun-dappled waters of the rivers where he will eventually row.
When he’s approached by Joyce Simdars (Hadley Robinson), a pretty co-ed whom he knew back when they were kids, Rantz clams up and barely makes eye contact, even though we know they’ll soon get together. He’s a man of few words, too proud to mention his impoverished circumstances to anybody. Many of the others around him, including his friend Roger Morris (Sam Strike), are in the same boat. When Rantz and Morris show up for the school’s rowing trials, the crowd around them is huge. Every kid there is also hoping to get a job, even though only a handful will make the eight-man crew team. Again, no one says a word, but you can see the desperation on their faces.
All the men of The Boys in the Boat are reticent — even Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), the head coach who thinks of nothing but getting his rowers to perform, to whom the aforementioned promise of jobs for these kids is just an afterthought. Dead serious about his own job, Ulbrickson is willing to let his inexperienced Junior Varsity team compete at the famed Poughkeepsie Regatta, despite the others’ seniority. He thinks his JV rowers’ working class backgrounds might provide the necessary edge for them to prevail against boats from traditional powerhouses in California and back East. (“Old money versus no money at all,” as a radio announcer puts it at one point.)
He won’t get much praise for it, but the terse, focused Ulbrickson is a perfect role for Edgerton (who also gave one of 2023’s best performances in Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener). At the start of his career, the actor seemed to be somewhat lost. His downcast energy didn’t always translate to the intensity some of his early roles called for. As he’s entered middle age, however, that submerged quality has ripened into a world-weary melancholy; his haunted visage has real character now. He won’t give you big speeches or other scene-stealing moments, but simply watching this man furrow his way through a challenge can be exciting in its own right.
The Boys in the Boat does feel true to its era, not just to the economic desperation in the air but also to the notion that these people are living in the ruins of a more prosperous age. When young Don Hume (Jack Mulhern), one of the rowers, sits at a piano and halts out a rendition of the Jazz Age standby “Ain’t We Got Fun,” the melody sounds like it’s echoing from a distant room; we understand that to these kids, the Roaring Twenties would barely be a memory. The movie doesn’t come right out and say it, but this economic devastation will, in a few quick years, give way to war in Europe and the Pacific. When Hitler shows up in the film’s final act (this is not a spoiler — the whole point of the movie is that these kids rowed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics), he’s there not just as the Chancellor of Germany, but as a menacing vision of things to come.
As a sports movie, The Boys in the Boat does provide a lot of the sturdy, conventional pleasures one expects from the genre. Full disclosure: I became a crew parent recently, and found myself paying closer attention to the depiction of rowing here than I might have in the past (during, say, the acclaimed regatta sequence in The Social Network). And Clooney does a nice job handling something that is not a naturally dramatic sport that can be easily depicted onscreen. The boats glide elegantly, sure, but the difference between winning and losing has to do with barely perceptible details, with questions of rhythm and timing, with wind resistance and waves and chemistry among the rowers themselves.
The Boys in the Boat probably could have done more on the characterization front — we feel just enough for the other rowers besides Joe Rantz that we wish we knew a bit more about them – but in showing how a crew team must function to succeed, it’s genuinely engrossing. And as a throwback to the kind of unfussy medium-budget prestige pictures Hollywood once specialized in, it feels like a breath of fresh air.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to the Munich Olympics instead of the Berlin Olympics.

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