Boys in the Boat
We were among those taking in the the movie, “Boys in the Boat,” on a rainy Christmas Day as it premiered in Seattle. The theater was packed, which is unusual but not surprising, given that the film is about the 1936 University of Washington Huskies crew team that won the gold medal in the Olympics in Berlin, to the disgust of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.
One reviewer at the Roger Ebert site wrote, “Nothing in the movie will surprise you, but it will satisfy you.” Another described it as “old-fashioned.” It definitely felt that way. I’ve been thinking about why.
Well, for one it was a story about men, heroic men. Often in contemporary movies and television, men come off as idiots or clueless, deeply flawed or wildly violent. The men portrayed here were almost with exception strong, tough though kind, and of admirable character. Perhaps too much so.
They were also men of few words. Their actions did the speaking. Lots of interior, but on the outside taciturn and seldom emotionally expressive, at least when the emotions they were experiencing were either painful or affectionate.
These were the kind of male role models I grew up with, which boys of my generation were to emulate. One doesn’t see many of these today. Maybe an occasional Tom Hanks character. Otherwise men in the movies often seem — as noted — silly and immature, clueless or violent. Or else they are superheroes endowed with superpowers, which has its problems.
There are some problems with the “strong, silent” type too. Some of us have worked hard to be more expressive and affectionate and self-disclosing. But if the alternative is stupid, silly, or violent, I’ll go with strong/ silent.
The women in the story were entirely in supportive and romantic roles, again old-fashioned or worse. There were almost no people of color, one or two in crowd scenes and a brief focus on Jesse Owens as the American Olympic team marched into the stadium.
So it was, I suppose, a white man’s world that we see on the screen. That said, these were not privileged or entitled men. It was the depression and these guys were strapped, struggling to hold it together. The central character, Joe, has been on his own since he was abandoned by his father at the age of 14. That disappointing Dad being the outlier among the otherwise admirable, though even he experiences a modest redemption.
As the movie opens Joe is living in a burned out car in a depression era “Hooverville.” He turns out for crew because it promised a job and a bed, if he made the cut.
Few did. Of the 100’s who turned out for crew, only 10 made it on the team. But there’s no complaining or dwelling of the disappointment of those who don’t make it. Life is tough. Period.
At least that was true for everyone on the UW crew, working-class boys from a school with few resources. They are up against their betters, rich kids from Ivy League schools and, of course, the Nazi’s best. So it was a classic underdog story, which if not unheard of these days, is still a little old-fashioned.
These days of course different stories dominate our entertainments, fiction and related narratives. Contemporary stories center the experience of women, people of color, gay people and of those at the margins. That’s fine. Overdue and needed in many ways.
But there were virtues in that older, now gone American culture. And there were role-models for men, which while limited, were positive.
While some today are trying to cling to that era for bad reasons, like sexism and racism, and seem willing to settle for the phony toughness of a Donald Trump to — they imagine — bring it back, there is probably also some not so base yearning for a time when men were people of strong character, reliable, willing to work hard, even suffer and sacrifice if need be.
Would that there were a way, as we re-evaluate and re-write the American story, to not throw out that particular baby — of the reliable, decent, hard-working man — with the bathwater of inequality, racism and privilege. Would that America were cultivating and celebrating people of character of all races, genders and faiths, not pitting some groups against others.