Inside Film

The Boys in the Boat is George Clooney’s take on old-fashioned heroism – is that so wrong?

Critics have laid into the actor/filmmaker’s new movie, about the US rowing team who struck gold at Hitler’s Berlin Olympics in 1936. But this is a film with heart and pluck, bearing echoes of ‘Chariots of Fire’, writes Geoffrey Macnab – audiences should embrace it rather than sneer

Friday 05 January 2024 06:00 GMT
An almighty row: Bruce Herbelin-Earle, Callum Turner and Jack Mulhern’s new film ‘The Boys in the Boat’ has divided critics
An almighty row: Bruce Herbelin-Earle, Callum Turner and Jack Mulhern’s new film ‘The Boys in the Boat’ has divided critics (Laurie Sparham )

In recent weeks, several critics have been trying their best to torpedo The Boys in the Boat. George Clooney’s new feature as a director, about the men’s eight rowing team that won gold for the US at the 1936 “Hitler” Berlin Olympics, has faced widespread dismissal: “staid,” “predictable” and “painstakingly wholesome” are among the criticisms.

“This feels like an animatronic museum display,” complained The Guardian. “George Clooney catches a crab with this ruthlessly shallow rowing drama,” wrote The Telegraph when it dipped its oar into the discussion. Clooney’s crime, it seems, is to have made a period drama about the triumph of plucky underdogs in an era when audiences simply can’t take such stories seriously. Or that this kind of storytelling is just too hopelessly old-fashioned. The question, though, is whether these tepid responses reveal more about their own prejudices than about any shortcomings in the film itself.

The Boys in the Boat is adapted from the best-selling non-fiction novel by Daniel James Brown. Its hero Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) is a kid from the wrong side of the tracks in Depression-era America, who overcomes hardship and family misfortune to secure his place on the University of Washington crew. He and the other rowers are coached by the martinet outsider Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), a gruff, taciturn man who becomes a father figure to the boys. Everybody sneers at these blue-collar types. The Ivy League colleges are appalled that a team of ragamuffins will represent the US at the Olympics. The Nazi Germans are convinced they’ll swat the upstart Yanks aside. The boys don’t even have enough money to pay for their trip to Europe. Joe, meanwhile, is battling the usual inner demons springing from his impoverished and troubled background.

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