Rowing is an especially cinematic sport, the oars moving as precisely in sync as a Rockettes kick line over glass-smooth water, while the sunrise tints the sky a soft pink. And this story captures our attention and our sympathy quickly, with young men who came of age during the bleakest years of The Depression. They have holes in their shoes and are always hungry. They and their coach understand that the deprivation they have experienced has made them willing to do whatever it takes to escape it.
Callum Turner gives a sensitive, thoughtful performance as Joe Rantz, a kid left on his own since his mother died and his father abandoned him. He is homeless, and about to be kicked out of school unless he can pay for his tuition. There are barely any jobs anywhere, making the University of Washington’s offer to financially support any man who wins a spot on the crew team alluring. Hundreds show up to try out for what the coach calls “the most difficult sport in the world.” He adds, “The average human body is not fit.” Rowers need twice the lung capacity of ordinary people. And they need to work together in “perfect unison” with the most precise coordination possible, which they call “swing.” Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) tells the team that they are not separate anymore; they are “eight separate parts of the same racehorse.”
Joe makes it onto the team, and if you’ve ever seen an underdog sports movie you know what’s about to happen next. There is a training montage to show how challenging the preparation is and how hard they have to work. The images of the practices and races are exquisitely beautiful with kaleidoscopic overhead shots showing the balletic precision of the oars dipping in and out of the water 45 times a minute. We do not get to know much about any of the teammates, except that Donny (Jack Mulhern) is very shy and barely speaks, but can play “Happy Days are Here Again” on the piano. More traditional plotting occurs: The team get painful blisters on their palms, Joe falls asleep in class, the coxswain is not working out, a coach reminds the boys this is for all the people who didn’t believe in them, and a girlfriend listens intently to the radio broadcast of the race.