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Opinion: ‘The Boys in the Boat’ joins a film canon selling this misleading myth

Opinion by Noah Berlatsky

(CNN) — I swam competitively for 10 years between middle school and college. Most mornings, I’d get up at 5 a.m. to go to practice before classes started, then spend hours after school in the pool or the weight room. A lot of days I wouldn’t be outside in daylight at all; I spent so much time in chlorine that my hair bleached.

I enjoyed swimming a lot, even though I was pretty bad at it. All that practice made me somewhat faster, but I was still an ectomorph with asthmatic lungs and a hard limit on my potential. Coaches kept trying to find a place where I would excel (Breaststroke? No. Distance swimming? No…). Finally most of them just shrugged, accepted that I was never, in fact, going to win anything and let me paddle along in the outside lanes.

I think this experience is pretty common; most people have at some point tried very hard at something they cared about without ever achieving great success. You wouldn’t know that that’s normal from Hollywood, though, which focuses almost exclusively on the outlier underdogs, who try and try and then have unlikely overwhelming success. It’s pat, predictable and in bulk ends up trumpeting a misleading and potentially dangerous faith in meritocracy — the idea that virtue and hard work always win out.

Director George Clooney’s new film, “The Boys in the Boat,” follows the usual trajectory with so little deviation you almost feel like you should shout, “Drink!” at each expected plot “twist.” The movie is a sports biopic about the eight-man crew team from the University of Washington that qualified for the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Nazi Berlin.

The protagonist is Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a freshman engineering student abandoned by his father. Joe is essentially homeless; he can’t pay his tuition and is afraid he’s going to get kicked out of school. He tries out for crew because he needs the team stipend and the housing reserved for school athletes.

The movie is based on the historical events detailed in Daniel James Brown’s 2013 nonfiction book. But the decision to tell this story is, obviously, overdetermined by its Hollywood fit. As in the horse race film “Seabiscuit” (2003) or the fictional film about unlikely musical stars, “O Brother Where Art Thou?”(2000), the Great Depression provides a background milieu of poverty and desperation. Joe and most of his teammates are given determination by lack. They know little about rowing, but come out for the team because they have few other options.

Despite their inexperience, though, the crusty coach with a heart of gold, Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), sees something in the scrappy young men. Before you can say “training montage,” Joe and the rest of the team oar their way to glory, overcoming elitist skepticism and the manipulations of East Coast rivals like Harvard to take their rightful place in history.

Again, underdogs win sometimes (these rowers did). In Hollywood, though, it’s more than sometimes; if you watched “The Karate Kid” (1984), “Hoosiers” (1986), “Bring It On,” (2000), “Miracle” (2004), “Pitch Perfect” (2012) and on and on, you’d come away convinced that improbable or disadvantaged outcasts are constantly triumphing over better-trained and better-resourced rivals through the unbeatable combination of hard work and virtue.

Hollywood does occasionally focus on downtrodden losers who actually lose. But those losses aren’t usually presented as the result of bad luck or material disadvantage. Instead, failure is a result, supposedly, of character flaws or weaknesses.

In “Nightmare Alley” (2021), for example, Stan (Bradley Cooper), like Joe Rantz, is fatherless and impoverished in the Great Depression. Like Joe, he stumbles on his calling — though for Joe, it’s carny card-reading psychic sideshows rather than crew. Like Joe, Stan works hard to get to the top of his profession.

But that’s where the parallels end. Joe, unlike Stan, never cheats or steals, and is a model of fidelity to his picture-perfect girlfriend (Hadley Robinson). Stan’s downfall, like Joe’s success, is a meritocratic morality tale; Stan ends up impoverished and debased because he’s a bad person who makes bad choices, not because people in a massive economic downturn just sometimes are impoverished and debased through no real fault of their own.

What would a film look like that didn’t pretend that the most virtuous and hardworking people always win? There aren’t a lot of examples. One, maybe, is Kelly Reichardt’s film, “Showing Up,” from earlier this year. The movie (like most of Reichardt’s movies) is slow and meandering; its schlubby, grumpy protagonist Lizzy (Michelle Williams) is a not-especially-successful artist preparing for a solo exhibit of her work — clay figures of women in everyday poses.

Lizzy approaches her art with obsessive meticulousness, but without great acclaim. Her reward is the art itself, and (maybe) the appreciation of friends and family. The film has little narrative drive because Lizzy has no real narrative arc; she’s not on a path to fame or fortune or Olympic gold.

Reichardt’s art (like Lizzy’s) has limited reach. “Showing Up” may do okay in awards season, but it was never going to be a blockbuster. One irony of those films about underdogs is that the films aren’t underdogs themselves. People have an endless appetite for narratives which tell them that hard work is rewarded and that good, handsome, all-American guys get the girl and the gold.

In the real world, though, starting out with a lot of money (like real estate heir Donald Trump) is generally the best guarantor of success in any endeavor, and most people who work hard end up, like Lizzy, with modest recognition at best. It’s fun and comforting to imagine a world of meritocratic justice. But I wish there were at least a few more films like “Showing Up” which focused on the oarsperson in the wrong boat, who pulled and pulled and finished second, or last.

As a very mediocre athlete, I’d like to see that movie. But also, a movie like that might help us remember that there are people like Joe with few resources who aren’t world-class rowers, and that they deserve a place to sleep, and a chance to study engineering too. When we insist that hard work and virtue is all you need for success, you have a rationale for refusing to help those with less. Why make sure Joe has a home when he’ll get one through skill and purity if he really deserves it? “The Boys in the Boat” is supposed to inspire and uplift. But the lie of meritocracy, repeated often enough, starts to look like an excuse to cut loose everyone but the most staggering successes, and let them drown.

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