Saturday, February 28, 2015

“The Boys in the Boat”: Some Unanswered Questions

Leni Riefenstahl’s films “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia,” documenting the rise of Hitler, are still shown in film courses as early models of the craft. “Olympia” was a centerpiece of the Nazi PR effort known as the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The film, like the 11th Olympiad, was meant to show the world the greatness of Germany, its leaders, and its athletes.

Germany did win the medal count with 33 gold and 89 total in 1936, but some athletes from other countries notably disappointed Hitler and his Reich Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, who was also Riefenstahl’s boss. Most famous of these was the black American track star Jesse Owens, whose four gold medals may have suggested to some that Aryans were not necessarily the dominant race. In “Boys in the Boat” Daniel James Brown chronicles another American gold winner, the nine-man boat from the University of Washington.

This is not a spoiler. If you read The Boys in the Boat, Brown will tell you on the first page that the college students from the Northwest and their shell, the Husky Clipper, won gold. What is remarkable, and sometimes unbelievable, about the The Boys in the Boat is how it sustains suspense. The nine plucky kids from small towns and lumber camps—including their Jewish cox, Bobby Moch—overcame so many obstacles on their path to the medal stand in Berlin, you’ll think much of the story invented. But triumph they did.

Brown borrows from the canon of sports-underdog narratives, including “Rocky,” “Rudy,” “Chariots of Fire,” and “Miracle on Ice.” While the effect of these stories is inevitably satisfying, this one in particular left me with questions.

Why wasn’t Brown’s book—which does for an American crew what Riefenstahl did for Hitler—titled Triumph of the Boat?

The author masterfully moves from the boys’ stories, especially that of the underdog’s underdog Joe Rantz, to Germany’s preparations for the Berlin Olympics, especially Riefenstahl’s. The two narratives converge like David and Goliath in the final chapters, when the Washington crew arrives in Germany and overcomes the last three or four jaw-dropping obstacles in their path.

From the beginning you know what’s in store, and you know what it’s going to prove. Boys in the Boat demonstrates that virtues like goodness, grace, humility, honor, and simple civility have an important place in a world gone to hell.

Brown brilliantly tells us the story of Rantz, his chosen David. You will fall in love with Joe and his girlfriend, Joyce; and you will cheer for him to the final photo finish. But you may ask yourself, as I did, How was Joe different from any of the boys in the German boat?

When I was done reading, I wanted to know about those German oarsmen and why they were any different than our American boys. Why, after all, did Joe end up on the winning side—in the boat race as in the war that followed? Why did he win so triumphantly? Why did the Germans lose so tragically?

Viewed this way, you realize what a piece of artifice The Boys in the Boat is. Not only does it sustain suspense; it also plucks every string in the patriotic American heart, just as Riefenstahl tried to do for the German.

Brown correctly shows that Hitler’s PR effort was working well in 1936. The world was taken in, including a representative German Jewish family that Brown describes. Avery Brundage, chairman of the US Olympic Committee, was another convinced that Hitler was up to good. In 1936, Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” was clearly a narrative of success, athletic and national.

Why is The Boys in the Boat, which dramatizes the Americans’ virtue and especially their selfless devotion to the cause of winning, any different than “Olympia”? Brown asks no questions at the end of his book. He only follows the traditional sports-narrative path of saying what happened to each of the boys in the Husky Clipper, including their reunions every ten years for sixty years. “And then only Joe and Roger Morris were left . . . ”

But so what was the difference? Why did the Americans win and the Germans lose? What if Joe Rantz had been born in Bavaria instead of Washington State? What if the Husky Clipper had lost?

What if we had lost?

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