Football fans (myself included) talk a lot about pain. The physical sport relies heavily on violent verbiage: We got killed out there today, we're going to slaughter that team, and so on. Those terms have never seemed more inappropriate than they do right now.
In 1970, the West Virginia-based Marshall University learned the true meaning of pain in the face of a loss. The team lost family and friends tied to the small school's football program when a plane crashed on its way home from East Carolina University. Administration, coaches, and surviving players left behind due to injury faced difficult decisions in the aftermath of the tragedy -- should they scrap the program or field a team of substitutes and play in honor of the deceased? Article continues below
Off the field, the inspired-by-true-events melodrama properly respects the painful material -- the film's director, McG
, helmed two Charlie's Angels movies but shows miraculous growth in this film. And by that, I mean he largely abandons the buzz-cut edits and pop-rock music cues of those cavity inducing sugar rushes, and allows well-conceived characters to have genuine conversations about meaningful things. Hey, progress is progress.
We Are Marshall runs its sincere story, credited to Jamie Linden and Cory Helms, through the playbook of motivational sports movies, jabbing a few emotional buttons and blitzing a few heartstrings. Matthew Fox
of TV's Lost conveys the sadness of Marshall's survivors with heavy hung shoulders and mournful stares. David Strathairn
, always welcome, personifies a conflicted school president torn between the memory of the deceased and the promise of a bright future at the end of the mourning process.
That ray of hope is Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey
), a football instructor and family man so moved by Marshall's predicament that he hounds the school's leaders for a head coaching job. Lengyel's a space cadet, an unfocused sports cliché wrapped in a plaid blazer who is prone to random tangents but dedicated to his team. Despite his unorthodox methods, Lengyel will have his team ready for game day.
And that's where Marshall fumbles. On the field, McG's picture mirrors every other football flick we've recently seen. It might as well be the kids of Gridiron Gang
, the convicts of The Longest Yard or Vince Papale's Philadelphia Eagles from Invincible
tossing the pigskin around. There's only so many ways one can stage the action between the lines, and I'm afraid we've exhausted them by the time we reach Marshall.
Football players know that games are won in the trenches, that small zone between the offensive and defensive lines that can swing a close game toward a win or a loss. The same goes for football movies, and Marshall -- a great film for the school's alumni but a decent film for everyone else -- mainly prevails when it wanders into that moral gray area between the need to honor its fallen players and the desire to simply play.