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Row, row, row your boat

“The Boys On The Boat” is wholesome but unconvincing

The Boys On The Boat is being marketed heavily as “Directed by George Clooney”, but anyone hoping for a glimpse of the lovesome hunk is in for a disappointment: he remains firmly behind the camera. And it’s not quite clear what difference his presence there made. Is there such a thing as a George Clooney style? Only if that means “competently assembled and perfectly OK”. Which is not nothing, of course. But it doesn’t really seem to be a particular selling point.

It’s the true story of the rowing team that the US sent to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and the pitch is that it’s a tale of underdog triumph, in which a squad from a down-at-heel university beat snootier and better-funded rivals to get selected for international competition. This may well be how it was, but the film doesn’t really land the struggle narrative. Perhaps it’s obvious to an American audience that the University of Washington is a deadbeat college, but it looks pretty nice to English eyes. They have three full-time rowing staff — how poor can they be?

There’s some decent acting, from Joel Edgerton in particular as the team’s taciturn coach. Few people can brood like Edgerton broods, and he lends heft to the film. And Callum Turner has a certain amount of charm as the central character Joe. 

Yet here again we hit the implausibility barrier

Yet here again we hit the implausibility barrier. Joe is supposed to be a student so poor that he’s living in an old car in a shanty town, unable to afford lunch. This is apparently a shanty town with a spa attached, because when we meet him, he looks like he’s stepped out of the kind of Beverly Hills hair salon where you won’t get change from a thousand dollars. The reality gap is only emphasised at the end of the film, when we’re shown photos of the real 1936 crew, and they do indeed look like they’ve lived through a great depression. 

Perhaps the biggest mistake is to have Adolf Hitler watch the climactic race. The danger with putting the Fuhrer on screen is always that he ends up looking more comic than menacing, and that’s exactly what happens here. 

Still, if you can suppress your sniggers, and suspend your disbelief that the exquisitely chiselled Turner has missed a single meal in his life, The Boys on the Boat offers you a wholesome evening watching some handsome young men learn to row. The rivers look beautiful, the rowing is captivating and the races themselves are exciting even though you know how they’ll end. Clooney-esque, I guess.

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