Despite its best intentions, there is much in We Are Marshall that holds it back from being the best it can be.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Oh, no, I hear you saying: Not another inspirational, true-life sports film! For the past dozen years or so, Hollywood has been grinding out these kind of flicks regularly, most of them following the same formula developed by "Rocky" all those years ago. A few of them I've enjoyed, like "The Rookie," "Invincible," and the underrated "The Greatest Game Ever Played." Most of them I have merely endured.

Now, we have "We Are Marshall," which must be the underdog story of all time, based as it is on one of the most tragic incidents in all of sports history. On November 14, 1970, the plane carrying the entire Marshall University football team, most of their coaches, and many of their supporters crashed on the way home to Huntington, West Virginia, killing everyone on board. The following season, with the urging of the town, Marshall regrouped, fielded a new team, and with renewed spirit helped to heal the community.

There is no question the actual incidents were stirring; the question is whether any film version of the experience could hope to capture the anguish, the excitement, or the elation of the real thing. In the case of "We Are Marshall," the 2006 fact-based movie of the circumstances, the answer is no, not quite. The fact is, once you understand what happened, which is pretty much as I explained it, there isn't a lot the film can do except rely on standard sports-movie stereotypes and clichés to tell the tale. So expect the usual private dramas, personal hardships, musical crescendos, clenched fists raised in the air, come-from-behind victories, and football fields of sentimentality to fill in the plot.

Then, there are the other questions. Like, of minor note, why is the film so long. I mean, it's 132 minutes. That is the kind of length usually reserved for epics, not sports stories. Of more serious weight, was the school's rush to get a new football program a tribute to the lost team, an attempt to restore the soul of the community, or a hasty decision made in the heat of loss? And most seriously, is the movie itself a salute to the school and community and their courage in going forward and rebuilding, or is it simply another of Hollywood's attempts to capitalize on what they see as a surefire grabber?

Certainly, one must always question Hollywood's motives; after all, people don't often associate the movie industry with pure humanitarianism. Still, in this case I think we have to give the movie the benefit of the doubt. "We Are Marshall" is sincere to a fault, and we should accept it for what it is--a genuine effort to show the best in people.

The first twenty minutes or so of the movie recount the disaster and its effect on the people of Huntington. This part of the story is heartbreaking. Following that is the most inspirational section of the film, when the school decides to rebuild its football program. This part is enough to bring tears to one's eyes, but it also means the story peaks too early and is never able to surpass that moment. Yet it has over an hour and a half to go.

Despite its best intentions, there is much in "We Are Marshall" that holds it back from being the best it can be. One such drawback is the simple detail that plagues so many other true-life sports stories: No matter how traumatic or uplifting the actual events, reality can still seem mundane on screen unless a movie delves deeply into the inner workings of its characters and brings them to life with vigor and force. That is partly the job of the scriptwriter, of course, but mostly the job of the director, in this instance McG (Joseph McGinty Nichol), whose previous claims to big-screen fame were the "Charlie's Angels" movies. I'm sorry; maybe it's just my bias against celebrities assuming pretentious single names. But in McG's case, it's probably more like his lack of imagination. He has the good sense to establish verisimilitude by shooting the film largely on the campus of Marshall University and sprinkling the soundtrack with an overlay of popular, identifiable music of the era from entertainers like Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater, Cat Stevens, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the Jackson 5. At the same time, he drops the ball by populating his story line with one-dimensional characters.

Even more unfortunate is the choice of Matthew McConaughey to play the lead character, Jack Lengyel, the coach who takes over a mostly freshman football team the season after the plane crash. McConaughey tries too hard to imitate the actual coach as well as inject a little color into the depiction, talking out of the side of his mouth and forever behaving like a cheerleader. He never comes across as either a real person or even a likeable person.

On the plus side of the acting ledger, though, we have Matthew Fox as the Marshall assistant coach, Red Dawson. Fox brings to his character the kind of realism that McConaughey's portrayal lacks. Fox seems more like a flesh-and-blood human being, whereas McConaughey seems more like a movie star. Then, there is Ian McShane, good as Paul Griffen, the chairman of the school board, a man who lost his son in the plane crash and takes a long time to recover. Also good are Anthony Mackie as Nate Ruffin, one of older players not on the plane when it crashed and one of the people responsible for carrying on the school's tradition; Kate Mara as Annie Cantrell, a waitress engaged to one of the young men who died in the plane; and Robert Patrick as the Marshall head coach lost in the crash.

But, most important, there is David Strathairn as Dr. Donald Dedmon, the president of the university. Has Strathairn ever given a bad performance ("Good Night, and Good Luck," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "L.A. Confidential")? If he has, I haven't seen it. In 2006 and 2007 he played two entirely opposite personalities on screen--the kindly, mild-mannered, well-meaning academic we see here and the ruthless, cold-blooded spy chief in "The Bourne Ultimatum." And he made us believe in both characters without question.

Anyway, with a story line we know in advance, a main character who isn't very interesting or very appealing, and a boatload of trite, overused sports-movie sentiments, "We Are Marshall" comes off as rather routine. The film has its moments, to be sure, and it will not disappoint every viewer; it just seems like it could have been so much more.

The picture looks good, WB's video engineers maintaining the movie's original 2.40:1 theatrical screen size (measuring about 2.26:1 across my television, given a small degree of overscan), with the only grain in sight no doubt a product of the original print and very little additional noise. The grain actually gives the image a realistic texture, so it's nothing we would want to see eliminated in any case. With a decent bit rate, anamorphic transfer we get some good, deep colors and intense black levels. The colors can be a little too intense, but it is fairly realistic, except in facial tones, which I found a trifle dark. Object delineation is also good, so, all in all, there is little to complain about.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound does its job in commendable fashion. Certainly, it is quite robust, with an efficient use of the surrounds. It is a pleasant, full sound, acceptably smooth and dynamic when necessary. It uses the surrounds to excellent effect, too, creating a decent 360-degree sound field, Bass, while subtle, is deep and powerful, if not quite in the same league with Dolby TrueHD. There is a very slight degree of soft fuzziness to the sound as well, but it is hardly noticeable except, again, in comparison to a TrueHD track.

The primary bonus item on the disc is a thirty-six-minute documentary called "Legendary Coaches: How Coaches Overcome Adversity," hosted by the film's director and highlighting the careers of Bobby Bowden, Pat Summit, Lute Olsen, George Horton, and John Wooden. In addition, there is a one-minute tribute to the college, "Marshall Now," and a five-minute promotional for the state of West Virginia. The disc also contains thirty-one scene selections but no chapter insert; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
"We Are Marshall" seems to me a genuine attempt to retell the story of the Marshall University tragedy and the subsequent rebuilding of its community spirit. Unfortunately, as dramatic as the true story is and as sympathetic as audiences are to the situation, the movie itself seldom rises above the mediocre and the sentimental. It relies far too much on our preexisting compassion and does little to generate any new interest in things we didn't already know or feel. In other words, in trotting out all of the anticipated stereotypes and clichés, it looks and feels ultimately like any other inspirational, true-life sports movie, just with a grimmer reality behind it. If you like such movies, you'll love this one. If you don't, this one probably won't matter.


Film Value