Thursday, December 28, 2023

The Boys in the Boat

Pulling Together in Swing-time
Depression and (Water) Displacement and Ripples in Time
As a University of Washington alumni, I know all about "The Boys in the Boat" (the legend, not the book or movie, although I know them, too). The UW Shell house still sits on the Montlake Cut* like a shrine of dessicating timbers and peeling, faded paint. But despite the appearance, no one would have it any other way. Because that is where it happened and where it started. Like the ancient armories that still haunt our nation's cities, it is there as a reminder, and is one of the more precious buildings on the campus, despite its humble beginnings and its lack of marble and columns. Those other buildings are more impressive in their architecture, but they don't have the memories varnished into them like the shell house has. It's a Historical Monument in Washington State, nestled as it is among the weeds and well-pooped-on concrete of the cut itself, which separates Lake Washington from Puget Sound and the ocean beyond. A former airplane hangar built in 1918 to house seaplanes and teach WWI pilots, it was repurposed for the UW rowing team to house the rowing shells. They nearly tore it down in the 1970's—when I was going to school there—but cooler heads prevailed, and they're even thinking about restoring the thing. For me, I think that'd just upset the quiet. And the history.
George Clooney has been working on The Boys in the Boat for ten years off and on after M-G-M acquired the film rights for the best-selling non-fiction novel (by Daniel James Brown) from the selling of the assets of the Weinstein Company. One can see why he wanted it to do it. Tim Egan in his review for the New York Times said it best: "'The Boys in the Boat' is about who we used to be. And who we could still be. Like the best history, its then and now wow factor is both embarrassing (to the present) and inspiring (to the future)." 
The true story of nine Depression era young men, who were underdogs in every aspect, they applied to the University of Washington Husky rowing crew just hoping for extra cash in their pockets—for the central figure, Joe Rantz (played in the film by Callum Turner, evoking a younger, less contemporary Ben Affleck), it meant he could continue paying the University's tuition pursuing an engineering degree—and a rent-free residence on campus. Rantz had been living in an abandoned car in a Seattle Hooverville
, and had been on his own since the age of 15. He was about to be kicked out of the U-Dub if he couldn't make up the other half of his tuition. A notice on a bulletin board suggested opportunity and he took it. He needed the job.
The school's rowing coach, Al Ulbrickson (played in the film by 
Joel Edgerton), was under pressure to re-energize the program after some disappointing seasons, and took a chance on finding new blood with his bulletin board notices. He already had a varsity team, but he was looking for a back-up crew in a junior varsity team, and he needed options if he wanted to compete. He wanted to keep his job.
But, there's something about synergy. These guys with everything to lose have to build up their endurance, brave the blisters and calluses and the brutal Northwest mornings and form a team and a rhythm where they're perfectly in sync in order to cut like a knife through the water without any hesitations, off-timing, or mistakes that might undercut the boat's momentum. Add in a slightly non-conformist coxswain in Bobby Moch (
Luke Slattery) and you have an interesting mix...if nobody screws up.
Well, SPOILER ALERT** they go on to win gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics against the best in the world—after qualifying against well-funded Ivy League crews ("That's something money can't buy" the coach says at one point.)—as well as threats from UW Husky boosters that Ulbrickson is championing his junior varsity squad over the legacy varsity team (the jv's are faster, give me a break), and Ivy League snobbery about whether the rightful winners, although poor, should be going over to Berlin when the losers could afford the trip. There are so many potential compromises and double-crosses in the theme of legacy and office politics that there seems to be a constant struggle just to achieve one's goals despite working harder. There is also the internal pressure on the athletes who suffer from imposter syndrome, performance jitters, and an ill-timed flu.
It's all so earnest and old-fashioned and Clooney leans into it like he's actually on the oars himself, hearkening back to an era where money was tight, people were desperate, but still managed to have the dignity to pull together rather than fly off, self-centered and self-absorbed, in the interest of "looking out for No. 1." Sure, I can get all cranky and say that the film lacks suspense (See **), and that Clooney, with his limitations on "where to put a camera on a racing shell", can't quite generate the adrenaline surge an audience expects in these things. But, I think I'd be missing the point of the picture—that people should be working for something better than themselves. And the more fat and sassy you get, the more it weighs everybody else down. It's a message that should resonate with all Americans these days, but, instead, I think that, cynically, it will be met with suspicion...and from circles that the film SHOULD appeal to.
But, the world is topsy-turvy now, so much so that Orwell would be shocked and appalled (and be forced to say "you can't make this crap UP!"). But, the bottom line is these guys were winners. They won the gold. They beat the odds and outlasted the hurdles placed before them by lesser mortals. 
 And nobody can argue with that.
* The indigenous Duwamish tribe had a word for the area that would be dug out to become the Montlake Cut—sxWátSadweehL , which is Salish for "Carry a Canoe."
** C'mon, this happened in 1936. The book's been out since 2013. At some point, there's a statute of limitations for spoilers on historical fact. Blame me? Blame yourself!  


  1. You were pretty gentle with this, it seems - I felt it overlooked a compelling backstory with some great socio-political elements and just focused on the underdog-sports-movie beats. Like, why leave out Bobby's Jewish heritage?

  2. Yeah, some of these things run away from you and go their own route. Initially I was concentrating on movie details, but left them out and now I realize they were just ephemera. Bobby's Jewish heritage...would have been worth a line or two, but Hitler was taking pains to burnish German's reputation pre-Olympics. I chalk it up to the filmmakers concentrating on Rantz's story—he was the only one left alive to be interviewed for the book—and except for an incident or two, most of the other crew-men were basically background figures in the movie. So, on to the next review with the hope of doing better.