by Mel Valentin
Directed by McG ("Charlie's Angels," "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle"), "We Are Marshall," the latest in a seemingly endless string of inspirational "based on a true story" sports dramas to come out in the last year (e.g., "Glory Road," "Gridiron Gang," "Invincible"), wallows in excessive sentimentality and banal message mongering about the redemptive, cathartic nature of sports and the non-importance of playing to win, but instead playing for the sheer joy of playing, for your team, your friends, your family, and your community. Little did we know that a violent collision sport that often leaves more than a few participants injured, some seriously, could be so cathartic for so many. Apparently, it is, or rather it was way back in 1970-71, when Marshall University rebooted its football program only months after a tragic plane crash killed most of the football team and the coaching staff.On November 14th, 1970, a chartered flight carrying thirty-seven members the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team, the head coach, Rick Tolley, and his staff, crashed on its way home from an away game against East Carolina. No one survived the plane crash. The crash and loss of life left the small community of Huntington, West Virginia, devastated and in mourning. Almost immediately, the decision whether to field a new football team or not became a central question. One side argued that retaining the program honored the memories of the dead, while the those against restarting the football program wanted, at minimum, the program delayed until the community had healed itself. The university went forward with restarting the football program the next season with a new coaching staff, the handful of players who, because of injury or other reasons, didn't travel that day, and raw recruits.
"We are...a string of sports drama clichés."
Now on to We Are Marshall. Post-crash, Marshall’s president, Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn), hires the straight-talking, optimistic Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) as the new football coach. Lengyel rebuilds his coaching staff around Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), the lone holdover from Tolley’s staff. With tough times ahead, Lengyel turns to his wife, Sandy (Kimberly Williams), for emotional and moral support as Lengyel. Over the course of a year, Lengyel has to overcome the inevitable challenges, from convincing the townspeople of his good intentions, overcoming the Dedmon’s doubts, recruiting new players from the Marshall’s athletic community and integrating the new recruits with the handful of experienced players he has left. Once his team is in place, training becomes paramount, followed, as expected, by a difficult football season where wins are few and far between and pride and integrity become increasingly important.
Not surprisingly, We Are Marshall hits all the action and emotional beats we've come to expect from generic sports dramas. Overcoming tragedy through sports isn't just inspirational, it's also a metaphor for life and living. Whatever lessons you learn on the football field, the basketball court, the baseball field, or the soccer pitch, can be easily applied to living and working in the "real", non-sports world. Some might argue that elevating sports to an arena where life-lessons can and should be learned is to overstate the value of playing in (or, to a lesser extent), watching sports. After all, watching sports may be for everyone, but playing professional sports is for a select few. Still, to fault We Are Marshall's themes as simple-minded (or, if you're less forgiving, harmful) is to damn an entire genre. Setting aside message or theme, then, does We Are Marshall work on its own limited terms? The short answer is already obvious, but here's the longer version.
With a "based on a true story" background, We Are Marshall never overcomes its predictability. There's not much dramatic tension or suspense where moviegoers know the outcome going into the theater. Actually, that's not completely true. If a skilled, talented director is at the helm of a well-written screenplay, there's a solid chance moviegoers will pretend to forget the outcome and slip into a film as it unfolds in present-tense real (and reel) time. That's not quite the case here, but that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone even vaguely familiar with McG's film, television, and video work (Charlie's Angels, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Fastlane). McG’s doesn’t do nuance, preferring bombast and attention-grabbing visuals to coherent storytelling.
Whatever his weaknesses as a filmmaker, McG wasn’t helped by first-time screenwriter Jamie Linden’s by-the-numbers, underline-every-emotion script that breaks the basic “show-don’t-tell” rule of storytelling multiple times, meaning we’re constantly told how to feel about the characters instead of being guided to empathy by character interactions, character decisions, and story events. Wait until you get the last-speech-before-the-big-game moment. It's meant to be stirring and inspirational, but instead it's ham-handed and obvious, a sure sign that Linden was only interested in writing to genre clichés. It's too bad, since a decently written pep speech can really work wonders on audiences. And in a film that extols a team- and community-first message, We Are Marshall goes where every sports drama has gone before, in a clearly defined moment of triumph on the football field and the post-game celebration.
To make things worse, far worse, casting Matthew McConaughey in the lead role of a well-intentioned, over-earnest, compassionate football coach had little to do with McConaughey's acting ability and everything to do with his star power (dim as it is). As an actor, McConaughey exudes a insensitive egotism. McConaughey is at his best (best being a relative term) when he’s cast as a self-centered, insincere, inauthentic character who, over the course of a film, gets a chance to redeem himself. Playing a character prone to platitude-heavy monologues about desire, willpower, teamwork, community, and the importance of playing football and playing it well, just isn’t within McConaughey's comfort zone. McConaughey’s line deliveries tend toward soporific, pause-heavy, contraction-free readings.Oddly, "We Are Marshall’s" producers already had a better lead actor in the cast: Matthew Fox ("Party of Five," "Lost"). Here Fox is the second lead, but in just a few early scenes Fox proves himself better suited to delivering "We Are Marshall’s" emotion-laden message without McConaughey’s baggage or limitations (Fox is also the better actor). When he breaks down, and he does break down, it’s one of the most authentic moments in an otherwise clichéd, but rarely unwatchable, sports drama.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=15307&reviewer=402
originally posted: 12/22/06 19:46:08