Rowing for team and country

Published 11:59 am Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Crossing the finish line at Tryon Theatre this week is a long-awaited film, “The Boys in the Boat.” This film is an adaptation of the identically titled novel, a novel that topped the New York Times best-seller list and received national acclaim. For many fans of that novel, an adaptation to film has been an eagerly anticipated event, and hopefully, this adaptation will satiate those cinematic appetites! 

“The Boys in the Boat” is directed by heralded actor George Clooney in his ninth turn behind the camera. Clooney has proven himself a more than capable director and showcases this in a clean and sophisticated film of triumph over adversity. This film is a traditional underdog story in many ways, as Clooney stays within a familiar mold, never sacrificing the artistic or emotional qualities of the film. 

The film is very closely adapted from the novel, with high fidelity paid to the novel’s plot structure. The opening of the plot finds America at the height of the Great Depression, in the 1930s, a nation still recovering from the burden of the first World War, and recently subject to terrible economic upheaval. This establishing backstory covers the origins of the rowers, all of whom came from circumstances of relative lack, with one rower even having survived childhood abandonment. As these rowers bond and work together at the University of Washington, their shared efforts and tenacity begin to yield results that none had foreseen, setting them on a trajectory for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. 

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The setting of this ultimate stage for the team’s competition folds into another story. In order to secure the approval of the Olympic Committee for hosting the games, Hitler oversaw the coordinated obfuscation of their escalating inhumane treatment of Jews and other persecuted “undesirables.” These efforts were ultimately successful and Germany received great acclaim for their hosting of the Olympic Games, a tragic underwriting of the level of competition reached by the University of Washington rowing team. 

As the film builds to the 1936 games, it provides a deeply compassionate and human story amidst the growing tension and pressure. The personal engagement with the various characters who propelled the team’s success provides much of the film’s heart, be it the boatbuilder George Pocock, the coach Al Ulbrickson, or the rowers themselves. One rower in particular, Joe Rantz, the one who came from the greatest poverty, is given a greater focus than most, his story most exemplifying the steep grade of the odds stacked against them, and the overwhelming difficulty of surmounting them.

“The Boys in the Boat” will surely please filmgoers in the effectively engaging capacity that underdog stories always have touched, and continue to touch our hearts. Competition and struggle are inherently engaging on their own, but tying them in with a compelling story of personal perseverance and dedication reaches a deeper level of engagement. Films like “The Boys in the Boat” may not challenge us, but they are affirming, uplifting, and compelling, a combination that guarantees the worth of admission. We hope you will join us for some rowing!