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'The Boys in the Boat': A New But Old-Style Sports Saga for Christmas

December 21, 2023 | By

Directed by George Clooney and landing in theaters on Christmas Day, The Boys in the Boat refutes the notion that they don't make 'em like they used to.

Somewhere in actor-turned-director Clooney's psyche, there's a love for days gone by. He's had great success in contemporary TV and film, but he's also shone in period pieces, from O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) to There Will Be Blood (2007) to Hail, Caesar! (2016). Something about him blends seamlessly into stories about the early to mid-20th Century.

What Is The Boys in the Boat About?

His latest directorial effort is set in the mid-1930s, in Seattle, Washington (which only became a state in 1889).

Far from being the aerospace and tech mecca it is today, Depression-era Seattle was known mainly as a port (if you watch The Deadliest Catch, you'll have seen that several boats from the Bering Sea crab-fishing fleet were headquartered there), and for shipbuilding and the lumber trade.

For the Huskies of the University of Washington, any hope of prevailing in the rarefied air of the sport of rowing faced headwinds from the elite colleges of the East, and the Bears of the moneyed University of California at Berkeley -- aka Cal -- down south in the Bay Area.

Based on the 2013 nonfiction book of the same name by Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat centers on Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a hardscrabble but dedicated kid. Abandoned by his family and scraping by on his own -- working where he can and living in a car -- Rantz goes out for the Huskies' eight-man rowing team in hopes of earning meals and a warm bed.

And, there's a fellow student, Joyce (Hadley Robinson), who's admired Joe since grade school -- and it's mutual. Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) sees the raw recruit's potential, but he's unrelenting in pushing Rantz and his teammates, knowing the obstacles in their path.

When it comes time to choose a team to go to the 1936 Berlin Olympics -- in front of Hitler himself -- Ulbrickson doesn't go with his seniors, but with Rantz's sophomore crew ... and they even get to meet Jesse Owens (Jyuddah Jaymes).

The rest, as they say, is sports history.

The Boys in the Boat Is a Modern Film in the Classic-Movie Style

The Boys in the Boat is a solid, classic underdog sports story -- with the added benefit of being true. Says Clooney at a press conference:
The fun part was that these young men, out of necessity, out of hunger, out of having nothing else, too, they were lumberjacks.  They got together and, you know, it’s sort of like The Beatles, you know? You put together a group of men who actually could be good enough to win the Olympics. It’s like when your third-best songwriter is George Harrison ... it’s sort of a magical group.  And it’s sort of what happened with these guys, was they ended up having these incredible men who worked as an incredible team.

Clooney and screenwriter Mark L. Smith make no effort to update the story, throw in contemporary ideas or attitudes, or make apologies for America or the world of the 1930s.

Aside from a bit of rough language (probably inserted for verisimilitude and to up the rating to a PG-13, meaning the film would be taken more seriously in Hollywood than if it was a G or PG), The Boys in the Boat could have been made 30 years ago, or 50 years ago, or more.

The look is suited to the period, and although modern film techniques are there, the movie captures a world of wooden boats, woolen clothes, and stubborn hopes in the face of serious adversity.

Says Robinson:

I love a period piece, and you know, this is a really interesting time in history. These people are pretty much destitute and really struggling to make ends meet. Both of them, you know, Joe and all of his teammates, but also Joyce. They’re all working to put food on their plates, and yeah, I loved working in this time period. It’s, like, finding the hope and the light within these people, even though they’re going through so much.

Teaching a Lesson About Hard Work and Perseverance

In the press conference, I wanted to know what the film could teach young people about the value of grit and determination to rise above barriers and disappointment. Edgerton says:
Well, I think you’ve summed it up perfectly. One of the cool things about this film is that rowing is, like certain sports, still quite elite, and something that not everyone can access. The idea that within this story, these guys are at a school that isn’t known for this, that they’re really sort of up against it, and that they are underdogs. The idea of working hard to achieve your goal and pulling things out of yourself that you don’t think you’re capable of. Then beyond that, doing it as a group and learning to kind of move as one and move as a family, I think, says a lot.  And dedicating yourself to a group.
Clooney echoes that:
What you get the sense of is that, you know, this is a very polarized time in our country.  Probably, you know, not since certainly the Civil War has it been this kind of anger. Most people in our country and around the world, most people wanna get along. Most people wanna live a normal life and raise their kids and life to go well.  And they want that for their neighbors, as well. So, what we felt like with this film, and coming up on Christmas, was that it’s also a film that talks about the idea that we’re all in this together. Probably the only way we’re gonna make it out intact is with one another and in supporting one another. The better everyone else is is the better you will be. So, I liked that theme for this film.

Does Faith Play a Role?

Not overtly, but you know there had to be a lot of praying going on.

Suitable for middle-schoolers and up, The Boys in the Boat hits theaters on Christmas Day. Take a look:


Reprinted with permission from Kate O'Hare's Pax Culturati blog at

Image: (L-R) Bruce Herbelin-Earle stars as Shorty Hunt, Callum Turner as Joe Rantz, and Wil Coban as Jim McMillan in director George Clooney’s THE BOYS IN THE BOAT. An Amazon MGM Studios film. Photo credit: Laurie Sparham ©2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Content Manager at Family Theater Productions.

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