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Content Caution

The Boys in the Boat 2023


In Theaters


Home Release Date




Paul Asay

Movie Review

Certain sports seem made for the rich. Polo, for instance. Or yacht racing.

Or rowing.

Oh, yes, rowing. Working-class stiffs typically don’t participate in eight-man rowing competitions. And they certainly didn’t in 1936. You need gentle bodies of water to practice in and leisure time with which to practice. The boats themselves (or “shells,” as participants call them) cost more than most cars this side of a Rolls Royce. 

The first collegiate U.S. boat race was a two-school affair, between Harvard and Yale. Of course. Little wonder that, for decades thereafter, sons of the moneyed elite dominated the sport. Rowers were gentlemen. The rest? Well, maybe those lower-income yokels could pick up baseball. Or boxing.

That class division might help explain why the University of Washington’s rowing team has struggled to keep up with the sport’s big boys.

The Great Depression had done a number on most everyone in 1936, but Washington’s rowing program could feel it more than many. The nation’s elite still kept most of its money. And they kept it on the East coast, where they sent it—and their boys—to Harvard, Yale and Princeton. The West’s talented, experienced rowers naturally gravitated toward Cal, home to legendary coach Ky Ebright and the last two Olympic gold medals.

Washington can’t draw from such a pool of rowing talent. Coach Al Ulbrickson knows this. Most of the school’s students come from working-class families. Many can barely afford tuition. And if they’d been in anything bigger than a fishing dinghy before, Al would be surprised.

Just take a look at Joe Rantz—an extreme example, but a telling one. His father abandoned him when the kid was just 14. He wants to get a degree to move up in the world. But he sleeps in a rusted-out car. He patches the holes in his shoes with newspaper. And let’s be honest, he can’t afford tuition, no matter how much he scrambles for cash. He knows less about rowing than your average squirrel.

But here Joe is, trying out for the rowing team. Why? A spot on the boat comes with a room, and a job. If he rows for the university, he just might be able to afford the university.

A lot of the young hopefuls standing in front of Coach Ulbrickson are in the same boat, you might say. They might not know which end of an oar to hold, but they want to row. Many need to. It’s not a snooty sport; it’s closer to a job, and they’re willing to learn by doing.  

But these young men number in the dozens. No matter how needy, no matter how deserving, only eight of them can land on Washington’s JV rowing squad.

Not a great start to the season, but the coach can work with this raw clay. He always has. And maybe—just maybe—this group of newbies might be the beginning of something special.

Positive Elements

The eight young men that Al Ulbrickson eventually selects (nine, if you include the alternate) are, indeed, pieces of something special: This would hardly be an inspirational sports movie if they weren’t.

These eight have the physical ability to compete in what the coach calls “the most difficult team sport in the world. … The average human body is not just meant for such things. It’s just not capable of such things.”

But the physical capability must be matched with desire—the willingness to work hard and tirelessly. Throughout The Boys in the Boat, we see how hard they work. So hard, in fact, that they can barely walk after practice. Joe soaks his blistered hands in cans of water. Others vomit over the side of the boat.

But even that dedication is not enough. The eight must work as one. “It’s called swing, when all eight are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action is out of sync with the rest of the boat,” says the team’s sage boat-maker, George Pocock. And when the team finds that unison, “rowing is more poetry than sport.”

Joe (who, of course, makes the team) has perhaps more drive and dedication than most, characteristics pounded into him during his hardscrabble teen years. But he’s also more headstrong: He’s so used to being on his own, so accustomed to people deserting him, that being part of a real team doesn’t come easy. The fact that he does become part of that team—an integral part—can be attributed to George’s wise, fatherly advice and Coach Ulbrickson’s stern standards. And it also ultimately requires Joe to humble himself—to set aside his own issues for the good of the larger team.

An opposing coach makes a generous gesture at a critical moment. Coach Tom Bolles sometimes argues with his coach, but loyally stands behind him when it counts.

The Washington team is not just vying to become a collegiate champion: The year’s best rowing team will go to the Olympics—held that year in Nazi Germany. As such, we hear references to Nazi racism. But when the rowing team meets Jesse Owens during the opening ceremonies, one rower asks if Jesse plans to win gold to teach a lesson to Germany. “Not the Germans,” Jesse says. “The folks back home.” It’s a pointed reference to the racism that existed back in the States, as well.

Spiritual Elements

Joe meets a girl named Joyce at Washington University (though, in truth, they knew each other several years before). Joyce asks Joe whether he remembers her mother. “Sorta,” Joe recalls. “Always had a Bible in her hand.”

“Yeah, unless she was throwing it at you,” Joyce says with a smile.

Sexual Content

Joyce kids Joe about having a crush on her in the fourth grade, and Joe doesn’t deny it. Joyce kept the proof of that crush—a construction-paper love note that Joe wrote to her. In fact, he finds it on her school desk. (Joyce says that she kept it just to show Joe—just in case he forgot the depth of his childhood affections.)

The two strike up a romantic relationship. Joyce sneaks Joe into her dorm room against house rules. She changes clothes while he’s there (though Joyce tells him to stare at the wall while she does so, and he does). And when the two are almost caught, she forces Joe to leap out the window. They spend some nighttime hours lying on a bed together, though the time is (as far as the camera’s concerned) rather chaste: Joyce simply lies next to Joe, her head resting on his chest.

The two of them kiss at times, including a long, lingering one before Joe hops on a train. In an interview, Joe calls Joyce his “girl.”

He’s hardly the only Washington oarsmen interested in romance, though. After a big win, one of Joe’s teammates tells a woman about the big race. “Too tired to go someplace quiet and show me how you did it?” the woman says (practically batting her eyelids). They quickly leave the party. Another teammate sits next to a girl, but both are apparently too shy to talk to each other.

Coach Ulbrickson is married. And one evening, as he broods on the front porch about the state of his JV boat, his wife comes out to talk with him. Once their short conversation is finished, she says, “Why don’t you see if there’s another view you could enjoy?” She walks back in the house, and he notices her silk robe lying on the porch. He smiles and walks into the house himself.

In some old photos of Washington’s real 1936 eight-man rowing team, we see some of its members without shirts. At a dance, two guys dance jokingly together.

Violent Content

One of Joe’s teammates jokingly calls him “Hobo Joe.” Joe lunges at him, and the two have to be kept separate so the situation doesn’t come to blows.

Crude or Profane Language

Seven s-words and a dribble of other profanities, including “a–,” “h—” and “pr–k.” God’s name is misused a half-dozen times (three of them with the word “d–n”), and Jesus’ name is abused thrice.

Drug and Alcohol Content

A handful of characters smoke.

Members of the rowing team drink beer around a campfire, celebrating making the team. Coach drinks whiskey on his front porch.

Other Negative Elements

We see one rowman vomit over the side of the boat. Another forgives a teammate for throwing up on his back. A sick teammate sits, half unconscious, by a toilet.

Roger Morris, the boat’s coxswain (the guy who shouts instructions from the front of the boat) references his privates in an insult to the rowers’ uneven technique.

Boosters put a lot of pressure on Coach Ulbrickson, threatening his job if he makes a decision they don’t approve of. Varsity rowers treat the JV squad disrespectfully.

As mentioned, Joe’s father and stepmother essentially deserted Joe when he was in his early teens. A teammate of Joe’s admits that he’s stolen clothes from Woolworths because he couldn’t afford his own.


When Joe struggles to fit in with the rest of the team, Coach Ulbrickson looks him in the eye and tells him this:

“Listen, I know it isn’t easy to trust every other person on that boat as much as you trust yourself. But it’s not about you. As good as you are, it’s not about you, Joe. Or me, or anybody else. It’s about the boat.”

The Boys in the Boat is based on a true story as chronicled in Daniel James Brown’s bestselling (and somewhat spoilery titled) book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics.

It seems an unlikely bestseller—and an unlikely subject for a movie. It’s not like rowing typically makes the prime-time Olympic telecast. It’s not as if we’re going to flip away from Sunday Night Football to watch a little eight-man rowing action.

And yet, the story is so inspirational, we can’t help but be drawn to it—much as the nation was drawn to it in 1936. And even though the story focuses on Joe, on the team’s dogged coach, on the various storylines that weave through this narrative tapestry, underneath it all runs that one certain, powerful, beautiful truth.

It’s about the boat.

It’s about those eight men who row together, to turn this sport into, as the boat maker says, poetry. It’s about turning away from I and turning toward we. In a country that prides itself on its individualism, that worships its lone heroes and sometimes revels in its isolation, this story reminds us of something powerful, something biblical: We’re stronger together. We’re stronger as one.

We know it instinctively when we’re part of a team, be it on a sports field or a quiz bowl or our place of business. When we set aside ourselves and work together, we can feel hints of that poetry underneath. And when someone doesn’t pull their weight, when someone pulls at their oar out of cadence, we can feel that, too. It doesn’t matter how good or talented they might be. It doesn’t matter how hard people try to compensate. The whole thing feels off. Out of kilter. The swing is gone.

Directed by George Clooney, The Boys in the Boat feels old-fashioned in the best of ways. It offers a straightforward narrative with likeable characters and clear-cut goals. It comes with a moral, both timely and timeless. And it even comes with a bit of old-fashioned restraint, where sexual dalliances are only hinted at and where everyone—for the most part—keeps their hands, and fists, to themselves.

Audiences will have to navigate a fair bit of language. Drinking and smoking find their way on screen, too. But otherwise, the film glides along the cinematic water with nary a ripple. And in its making, you can feel its swing.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.