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In every inspirational sports movie, there’s a seemingly insurmountable obstacle that the home team must overcome: a lack of natural ability, a tough opponent, a star player who turns into a wolf. There’s one obstacle so huge, though, that no jock flick had ever dared deploy it before now. After watching We Are Marshall—in which the home team gets killed in the first act—it’s easy to understand why. When United 93 meets Rudy, the deaths tend to overshadow the football.
Marshall is based on the real-life 1970 plane crash that killed 37 Marshall University football players and 38 coaches, fans, and crew members. In the film’s opening sequence, we’re introduced to the crash victims as well as to the lucky few who miss the flight. The characters who perish are by necessity thinly drawn, but their deaths still hit hard. The crash happens off-screen, after some turbulence and a sudden flash. Director McG chooses to focus on what happens in Marshall’s home base of Huntington, W.Va., switching between fast- and slow-motion as two players who missed the road trip hear the news and rush to the scene.
The first 15 minutes of Marshall make for an exhilarating, devastating short film. But then, like the players who develop serious cases of survivor’s guilt, the audience is left with a why-are-we-here problem. Following a prolonged debate, the school decides to resume playing football with a new coach and new players. But after the plane crash, football seems kind of beside the point—especially by-the-numbers movie football.
McG, who directed both Charlie’s Angels movies, does a fine job choreographing the football scenes. The gridiron action looks authentic enough, and he knows when to zoom, when to switch to a wide shot, and how to use sound to punch up the tension. He struggles, though, with creating drama off the field.
Part of the problem is Matthew McConaughey. He plays Jack Lengyel, the man chosen to revive the Marshall program, as a yarn-spinning, happy-go-lucky motivational speaker—Dazed and Confused’s Wooderson with a whistle. McConaughey, who’s become a fixture on the sidelines during University of Texas games, clearly relishes the opportunity to play a coach. But his characterization belongs in a sports movie that aims to be less emotionally complex—Remember the Titans, perhaps.
Marshall as a whole does a bit too much Titans remembering. There’s the same period music, the same football-obsessed little kid, the same scenes of a team learning to play together. Whereas Titans’ likable cast made up for its clichéd plot, there aren’t any characters—any living ones at least—to care about in Marshall. The filmmakers don’t bother to introduce the players who’ve been brought in to restart the program, and of those who survived, only team captain Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) and assistant coach Red Dawson (Lost’s Matthew Fox) are endowed with any sort of personality. The main off-field subplot, in which a surly mill worker (Ian McShane) tries to come to terms with his son’s death in the crash, feels more like a distraction than a needed bit of humanity.
Ultimately, We Are Marshall presents too much of a storytelling challenge for McG and scripter Jamie Linden. During the big game, the audience has no one in particular to cheer for, just the concept of rebirth. That’s what happens when you have a human-interest story that gives the audience no humans to be interested in.