The Boys in the Boat – Rocky on the Water

I have yet to do a statistical analysis, but it feels like there are more films drawn from nonfiction sources these days. Perhaps truth is stranger than fiction, but it can certainly make for compelling films. This is one such example.

When reading the book of the same name several years ago, I had doubts about how successive recounting of boat races could be made interesting. Instead, the author Daniel James Brown was able to evoke a surprisingly gripping narrative throughout.

In the film adaptation George Clooney directs from a script by Mark L. Smith, adapted from the book. Clooney’s directorial touch is firm and guiding, yes, much like a coxswain. By now you probably know the plot follows the story of a ragtag Depression-era crew that triumphs over all the elite domestic teams to earn a berth at the 1936 Olympics.

The crew is coached by Al Ulbrickson, played by Joel Edgerton in thoroughly convincing manner. The college boys at University of Washington who make the team have their characters well developed over the course of the film, but the main focus is on Joe Rantz. He’s well-assayed by Callum Turner as a completely down on his luck but resilient student doing what Is ever needed to not only feed himself, but to also get an education.

Like the fictional Rocky, Rantz has a love interest. The filmmakers in both cases undoubtedly used this aspect to attract the distaff side. Rantz understandably becomes enamored of Joyce Simdars, confidently played by Hadley Robinson. It did seem that Simdars’ demeanor was a bit ahead of her time, as she made most of the first moves on her male suitor.

The film looks fantastic as well as authentic. Most costume designers seem to prefer the 1930s to the 1950s, as the prevailing fashions have withstood the test of time. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe captures the excitement of the races, despite the prevailing wisdom that shooting on water is a recipe for disaster.

When the action moves to Germany the stakes truly become global, and the tension is palpable. I do not think there will be the number of sequels, if any, as compared to Rocky. This film stands perfectly well on its own.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.