WE ARE MARSHALL
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, Anthony Mackie, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, Kate Mara
MPAA Rating: (for emotional thematic material, a crash scene, and mild language)
Running Time: 2:05
Release Date: 12/22/06
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Review by Mark Dujsik
For a movie about the effects of tragedy on the people in a football town, We Are Marshall doesn't care about the grief process, its characters, or, most shockingly, football. Sports movies in general can get away with a lot if they feature well-made sequences of the sport in question being played, but director McG (no fast food jokes this time) even has a difficult time holding any interest in the rare times we see the game of football on screen. There's no build up to the games, and when they do arrive, he depends too much on the off-screen commentary of the play-by-play to effectively garner anything resembling excitement. This is a minor problem in a movie that focuses almost entirely on the grief that strikes a town that loses so much to tragedy without doing any justice to their grief. By the end of the movie, no character has been developed beyond trite descriptions, and whatever emotional weight the movie has from its outset is buried within a formulaic underdog story. Despite how hard McG and screenwriter Jamie Linden force it, the story of Marshall University is not the inspirational story of underdogs overcoming the odds but one of people trying to regain the status quo.
Huntington, West Virginia is a town that loves its college football. Their team, the Marshall University Thundering Herd, has just lost at East Carolina University and is about to come home. As the team boards their chartered plane, Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), a recruiter for the team, gives up his seat so a colleague can get home for his granddaughter's piano recital. As he drives home, he hears the news on the radio: A plane has crashed in Huntington. As the town crowds the crash sight, they discover it was Marshall's plane. There are no survivors. Paul Griffin (Ian McShane), a member of the university's board and the father of one of the football players killed in the crash, wants the football program suspended, and the president of the university Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) is inclined to agree. However, when Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), a player who missed the fated game due to an injury, pulls the school together in a chant outside of the board's closed-door meeting, Dedmon and the board decide differently. After attempts to bring in an alumnus coach fail, Dedmon receives a phone call from Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) who wants to take the job.
The movie boldly states in its opening title that "this is a true story," and it is to a strong degree. So it is fair to decry the movie for being formulaic? Of course it is; after all, Linden's script's focus of the real-life tragedy is the training of an underdog squad. It's a shame, really, considering the inherent humanity in the subject matter. Left in the wings to this questionably inspirational angle of the story are the families affected by the tragedy, the conflict between continuing the program and canceling it out of respect, and the guilt of the survivors. Yes, Linden's screenplay occasionally touches upon these elements, but these moments feel entirely like lip service. There are no villains, although Griffin's understandable concern of a new football season being a weekly reminder of the ones lost certainly ends up being the cowardly end of the Lengyel's argument of how a losing team is actually a winning one. The way Griffin tells his son's fiancée Annie (Kate Mara) to wear her engagement ring every day to remind her of her lost love feels a bit harsh as well, although her character's only other duty seems to be to give the cheesy poetic voice-over throughout the movie.
The movie has a lot of speeches, all of them underscored by the swelling strains of Christopher Beck's unrelenting score, and none hitting any emotional resonance. Lengyel tells Red that the team must get through its first home game for the healing to begin, and later tells all of his players at the crash site that he's seen their hearts. That's good for him, because the script certainly hasn't given us anything about them. Nate, the only member of the team with any kind of substantial screen time, has the character arc of slowly warming up to his new teammates but still feeling regret. The cast is entirely wasted. Matthew McConaughey cocks his mouth to the side, David Strathairn walks around uncomfortable in his clothes, and Ian McShane just plays gruff. Only Matthew Fox rises above the generalized, making Red's guilt sympathetic. It's not enough to make the Big Game involving, especially when that game plays out like a highlight reel. No sooner does it start than the half's over, and no sooner does the second half start than McG is putting the final play in slow motion with the final pass being lazily intercut with a montage of highlights from the movie itself.
This "in case you missed our movie" moment caps the movie's strained but hollow attempts to earn emotional resonance, and the mishmash finale, featuring a coda of characters we know nothing about followed by an epilogue followed by yet another coda, frustrates as a further reminder of how little we care about what has happened. We Are Marshall is a cynical piece of filmmaking, pushing for tears it never attempts to earn.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.