The Boys in the Boat: A Film That Will Make You Miss the America We Once Had

By John Zmirak Published on January 7, 2024

I’m not a sports movie guy. In fact, the experience of being a New York Mets fan in the 1970s cauterized the love of sports itself in my soul. I came to associate sports with … rank despair. That’s what watching your beloved team going from the World Series one year to last place year after year can do to a sensitive person.

So when the only movie playing one night was The Boys in the Boat, about an Olympic rowing team in the 1930s, I wasn’t exactly excited. In my best Niles Crane voice I remarked, “Ah, a sporting events film. How droll.” But I really wanted to get out of the house in the post-Christmas week, and it seemed inoffensive, so I gave it a shot.

And wasn’t I glad I did! First of all, the movie directed by George Clooney but starring no big names was gripping, wholesome, and exciting. The acting was uniformly excellent, and the visuals were beautiful. It was set in the 1930s, so everyone dressed dapper — even the hobos in the soup kitchen line looked neat compared to 2024 senators such as John Fetterman.

Rowing for Their Livelihoods

And that makes an important point: This movie about the build-up to the 1936 Olympics is set at the depth of the Great Depression, when four years of the New Deal had done almost nothing to solve the crisis. Everyone in the story who’s even employed is desperate to keep his job, with the wolf at the door.

It’s against that background that we meet Joe Rantz, a young undergrad at the University of Washington. He’s studying engineering. Joe is not just the first member of his family to go to college (not that uncommon in that era). He’s also practically orphaned, after his mother died and his father abandoned the family to seek work in some other state. He can’t scrape together tuition, and faces not just dropping out of school but the prospect of being homeless. Desperate to find some income, he sees that a job is offered to any student who makes the rowing (“crew”) team. So he enrolls in that sport.

What he faces is a grinding regime of daily physical training — which luckily he was prepared for by a lifetime of manual labor. The UW team is a perennial underdog, striving to beat its much richer rivals at the University of California. But this year the stakes are far higher: the leading college team in the U.S. will go to the Olympics to compete in Munich against the likes of Hitler’s own German team.

Ashamed of His Background

Along the way he meets Joyce, a lovely young woman whom it turns out he once was in love with in grammar school. By some strange chance or Providence, she remembers him — in fact, she has saved his boyish love notes. Ashamed of his desperate poverty and broken family background, he tells her various stories to throw her off the scent, and for a while ignores her increasingly blatant hints that she’s interested in him.

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Meanwhile, Joe’s coach Al Ulbrickson is trying to break his team’s long losing spell. In fact, he gets warned by a fatcat alumni donor that if his team doesn’t win this year, he too will join the ranks of the despairingly unemployed. He must try something different and daring, or else face ruin for himself and his family.

Taking a Chance on the Underdogs

What Ulbrickson notices is that the new team, the young junior varsity crew which Joe joined, has a different spirit than any he has seen in years. Perhaps because so many of them are desperate, they row with dedication and heart, and they seem to compete strategically. They offer the one slim hope UW has of fielding a team that might find a place in the Olympics. So he takes a chance, and sends the junior varsity instead of the varsity team to compete for an Olympics spot. This enrages his bosses and puts his job at immediate risk.

I don’t want to spoil the story and tell you how things turn out. Suffice it to say that this film is based on a real historical team in U.S. Olympic history.

They Don’t Write ‘Em Like That Anymore

What I do want to say is that this is the kind of beautiful, uplifting movie which we used to get offered frequently. It reminded me, in fact, of Chariots of Fire. The love affairs are chaste, but persuasive. The competition is fierce, but everyone plays fair. People are poor and desperate, but never behave contemptibly. Even the Nazi officials judging the races don’t cheat to gratify Hitler, which puts them a few steps above U.S. election officials in our own time.

Everything about The Boys in the Boat was gripping and uplifting — except perhaps the grim contrast with the world we inhabit today.


John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”

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