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Michael O’BrienDecember 21, 2023
Image Courtesy of IMDb

Some of Jesus’ greatest miracles happened on the water and in boats. He walked on water at the Sea of Galilee. He impossibly filled fishermen’s nets. He calmed a storm from a boat. 

The biblical scholar Frederick Dale Bruner cites Jesus’ miracle of walking on water as one of the most important parts of understanding his divine and human natures: “I am most comfortable understanding our Gospel story as a miracle done on the water…in order to preserve both Jesus’ true humanity and to protect Jesus’ way of being divine.” 

The possibility of miracles occurring on the water is embodied in George Clooney’s newest directorial work, “The Boys in the Boat,” based on the 2013 bestselling novel of the same name by author Daniel James Brown. Telling the true story of the 1936 Team U.S.A. rowing squad that won gold on the Grünau Regatta Course at the Berlin Olympics, “The Boys in the Boat” is more than a sports movie: It’s a tale of perseverance, dedication and unity.

The movie will be released on Christmas Day—a day of hope and miracles on the Catholic calendar. This wasn’t lost on Clooney, who was raised Roman Catholic. 

The film is mostly told through the stories of Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), and his coach, Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton). Rantz was abandoned by his father and stepmother as a teenager during the height of the Great Depression. Putting himself through the University of Washington, Rantz and seven other young men received pay and housing for making the U.W. junior varsity crew team. What started out mainly as a job and a shelter for Rantz and his teammates turned into a nearly unimaginable story—they outperformed the Washington varsity boat, outrowed other elite collegiate crew teams to qualify for the Olympics, then defeated the best rowers in the world to capture gold under the watch of Adolf Hitler.

Mr. Turner spoke to America about playing Rantz at the film’s New York premiere: “I was so inspired by Joe. He decided that being abandoned was not going to define his life. He fought, he hustled and he busted gut, and that bravery was the thing that I was so blown away by. I just thought he was one of the most incredible humans.”

While Rantz’s father appears in his life again after his son’s rise to national fame, he doesn’t pursue reconnection with him. Rantz finds a different family by the end of the film—in his future wife, his teammates and his coaches. They may not be the family Rantz was born with, but they more than fill the hole left by his father’s abandonment. 

I asked Turner about how he approached playing the lead role of a film about an entire team. “Well, making a movie is also like being part of a team,” he said. “You can be the main character or a supporting character, it doesn’t matter, you’re a cog in the system. And it’s the same thing with being in the boat—I thought I knew what being part of a team meant, but with rowing specifically, there’s a different level of connection that you have to have.”

Indeed, eight-man crew is often described as one of the most demanding sports in the world; powering the body and mind through its rigorous physical and mental challenges would be impossible alone.

“You can’t be involved in a sport where all eight of you are doing the exact same thing at the exact same time without getting close; it’s inevitable,” Sam Strike, who portrays Roger Morris, one of the eight boys, told America. “You have to trust and care about each other. My seat is at the back of the boat, so I can see all the way down and see what everyone’s doing. So there were times where tensions run high and you want to criticize your teammates, but we all became the best of friends. I love those guys dearly.”

The film also embraces the power of love, as much of the story is also about Joyce Simdars (Hadley Robinson). Simdars was one of Rantz’s few childhood friends and the two reconnected at U.W.; they were married the same day that they graduated together. In fact, as shown in the movie, Simdars still had a note that Rantz mailed her when she needed to move away from their childhood hometown as an adolescent, a touching moment of reconnection and fulfilled love.

Eight-man crew is often described as one of the most demanding sports in the world; powering the body and mind through its rigorous challenges would be impossible alone.

The relationship between Rantz and Simdars is old-timey in many ways, including the romantic kiss they share before Rantz boards a train headed for a competition on the East Coast. I asked Robinson about how she gave depth to the characters’ relationship: “In the book you get to read a lot about Joyce’s life and how she grew up, and I wanted to bring that complexity into her character because she is a full human being, and she has so much going on, and it’s always more interesting that way.”

The role of women in a movie focused on men is also enhanced by Coach Al’s wife, Hazel Ulbrickson, played by Courtney Henggeler. Hazel guides Coach Al through moments of stress and disappointment so that he can serve as the support system for the eight boys in the boat.

During a scene in which Al, his boys and his coaches need to scramble to fundraise money in order to cover the expenses of traveling to Germany, Hazel is with him the entire time, encouraging him to keep going even before their hopes are saved by a generous donation from rival U.C.L.A. coach Ky Ebright, another poignant moment of putting differences aside to help their American cause.

“I feel like they needed to have the Hazel to complement Coach Al’s gruffness, to give the warmth that’s present in the other side of him,” Henggeler told America. “Otherwise he becomes a person that’s just all about rowing, so I think you get to see the full dynamic of who he is as a person through his relationship with his wife.”

The movie will be released on Christmas Day—a day of hope and miracles on the Catholic calendar. This wasn’t lost on Clooney, who was raised Roman Catholic. 

“The reason we released it on December 25th is because it felt like a Christmas movie,” Clooney said. “It’s not like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ but it did feel like this is supposed to be a movie you see with your family. This is a movie you see with your kids or with your parents to sit down and enjoy. [The Christmas release] is a tradition in America; it’s not so much in other parts of the world, but in America, you go out on Christmas Day and watch a movie. We like to put a lot of challenging films out during this period of time, and this is one that’s more about enjoying yourself.”

I asked Clooney if he found himself embodying the spirit of Coach Ulbrickson as a director, especially working with actors who had no prior rowing experience. “I’ve done a few films before and none of them have ever been the same style, I’ve always tried to do something different. This one was a little more nerve-wracking because it was physically demanding for everybody, but I like a good sports story, so it was fun.”

“The Boys in the Boat” may not depict an event as inexplicable as someone walking on water, but this Christmas, viewers might enjoy embracing the miraculous possibilities of the human spirit and watch what happens when eight underdogs pour their hearts into something bigger than themselves.

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