There are very few things rowers love more than watching other people row badly. Annual “Head Of The Charles Destruction” and other boat crash videos regularly rack up thousands of views on YouTube. Many rowers I’ve met love to reference in regular conversation an infamous incident where a team rowed directly into a pole. There are few things more gratifying than watching a big, beefy dude in a gym unknowingly treat a rowing machine like a children’s toy. So you should know that it brings me absolutely no joy to say that George Clooney’s The Boys In The Boat absolutely nailed the little quirks and intricacies of its central sport.
Before critiquing pop culture for a living at The A.V. Club, I critiqued rowing for almost a decade as a coxswain on various teams throughout high school, college, and adulthood (which the rowing community delightfully calls “masters”). That means I was the small person who sits in either the front or back of the boat, steers, and yells a lot. I love the sport and I personally think it’s thrilling to watch, but thus far Hollywood hasn’t exactly agreed with me. There are a few notable exceptions, of course. The Social Network is a big one. But in general, if a movie features—or even centers on—crew, the details of the rowing itself have been so unrealistic that it’s been hard (at least for me) to buy into anything else the film is trying to do.
The Boys In The Boat, an adaptation of Daniel James Brown’s 2013 book about the true story of an underdog team from the University of Washington who went on to compete for the United States at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, is different. I knew it would be before anyone even picked up an oar. Before main character Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) is selected for the team, coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) delivers a brusque speech to the assembled group of potential recruits: “Eight man crew is the most difficult team sport in the world. The average human body is just not meant for such things. It’s just not capable of such things. But average is not gonna get a seat on my boat. So good luck.” My roommate started laughing as soon as Ulbrickson finished, but it took me a second to process what about the speech was funny. Yes, it’s self aggrandizing and ridiculous, but it’s also the exact way every coach I’ve ever had has talked about the sport. Rowers suffer from a whole host of martyr complexes; George Clooney did his research.
The actual rowing scenes are no different. Former Olympic coach Terry O’Neill really earned his stripes here turning a group of eight Hollywood guys who’d never stepped foot in a shell into a team that could believably compete among the best in the world, at least visually. Their catches were clean and even. The boat was set. If I had gotten to drive any of those races, I would have been slapping the water in triumph as well.
To comment on every other true-to-life moment would be to retell the entire story of the film, so I obviously won’t do that here. But I do want to highlight a few details that made me and other friends and former teammates I’ve talked to about it smile. First off, all of the rowing-specific lingo is spot on. While the film doesn’t really explain what any of these terms mean, it was weirdly exhilarating to hear words like “engine room” (the powerhouse rowers in the middle of the lineup), “skying” (when a rower dips their oar handle too low before dropping their blade into the water), and “feather” (when an oar blade is parallel to the water) on the big screen. Luke Slattery, who plays the team’s coxswain, also nails what we call “rhythm speak,” or using your voice during a race to match the cadence of the boat and help the rowers get in time with one another. When he repeats “as ... one” over and over like a mantra, that’s what he’s doing. Yes, we sit in dark rooms the night before race day and visualize every stroke, and yes, people frequently puke after finishing tough pieces. Coxswains still get thrown into the water after winning a race (it’s cold!), but at least we don’t have to wear those giant cones strapped to our face anymore. That’s a win in itself.
Rowers may be self-serious, pretentious, and consistently unavailable to people who don’t regularly wake up at 4 a.m. All of that is true. But the experience of forming ironclad bonds with your teammates, striving towards a communal goal, and crossing the finish line knowing that you’ve left absolutely everything you have out on the water is something that sticks with you forever. The Boys In The Boat is absolutely right about that too.