Movie Review: We Are Marshall
FILM REVIEW: WE ARE MARSHALL
By Jessica Reaves
Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
If there's a sports team in America whose inspiring triumph over adversity has not yet been documented in a major motion picture, I will eat my hat. That being said, even this overstuffed genre ("Remember the Titans," "Glory Road," "Hoosiers," to name just a few) makes room for quality newcomers. Surprisingly restrained and undeniably entertaining, "We Are Marshall" easily fills the bill.
On the evening of Nov. 14, 1970, after a tough loss to East Carolina, the Marshall University football team, coaches, radio announcer and boosters were flying home to Huntington, W.Va. Their plane, shrouded in fog and rain, crashed on final approach, killing everyone on board. "We Are Marshall" is the story of the school, the town and the people left behind by the tragedy.
The plane crash brought life to a halt in Huntington, where football provided not only entertainment but also identity and hope. As the shock wore off, the heated debates began: Would the Marshall Thundering Herd take the field again? Should the team be rebuilt? Or should the school suspend the program out of respect for the dead?
"Restrained" and "tasteful" are not words normally associated with McG, the director best known for countless music videos and the "Charlie's Angels" movie franchise. "We Are Marshall" could change that. In his first feature outing in three years, McG shows new maturity. Scenes that could have been played for ghoulish effect, like the plane crash and its fiery aftermath, are handled with skillful efficiency.
At the ripe old age of 26, first-time screenwriter Jamie Linden tackled a notoriously thorny situation (true story, living subjects, weeks of location shooting, emotional minefield) and emerged relatively unscathed with a script that has real emotional range. He crafts composite characters Paul Geffen (Ian McShane), who lost his beloved son and sits for hours in "their" booth at the local diner, and cheerleader/waitress Annie (Kate Mara), who is tormented by her engagement ring. Haunted assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), who gave up his seat on the doomed flight, is paralyzed by grief and survivor's guilt. Meanwhile, Marshall president Dedmon (David Strathairn in a quietly humorous turn) is befuddled by the whole situation.
For a movie about a beloved football team dying in a horrific plane crash, "Marshall" indulges in relatively little sentimentality. While McG indulges a few teary moments, he deftly heads off mawkishness by keeping the pace brisk and the energy high. The movie is also surprisingly funny, thanks to Linden's script and to Matthew McConaughey's manic turn as Jack Lengyel, the young coach who stepped in to rebuild the shattered Marshall squad.
The actor, sporting a mop of curls and an amazing polyester wardrobe, radiates boyish enthusiasm as a coach who is either too stubborn or too daft to be cowed by taking on the most thankless job in America. I normally find McConaughey completely unappealing, but as Lengyel, his usual self-satisfied smirk replaced by a grin of pure joy, he's pretty charming. (Dalton Polston, who plays Lengyel's rambunctious son Peter, steals a couple of scenes from his on-screen father).
Like many other sports movies that aren't really about sports (see examples above), "Marshall" isn't really about football. There are plenty of action-packed, heart-pounding sequences, but the game is secondary to the primary characters, who are wrestling with death in very different ways, and who find joy and humor in unexpected places.
Warm and big-hearted, "We Are Marshall" succeeds as a tribute because it respects its subjects. It succeeds as a movie because it doesn't confuse respect with lifelessness.
"We Are Marshall"
Directed by McG; screenplay by Jamie Linden; photographed by Shane Hurlbut; edited by Priscilla Nedd Friendly and Gregg London; music by Christophe Beck; production design by Tom Meyer; produced by McG and Basil Iwanyk. A Legendary Pictures release. Running time: 2:05. MPAA rating: PG (emotional thematic material, a crash scene, and mild language).
Donald Dedmon - David Strathairn
Red Dawson - Matthew Fox
Jack Lengyel - Matthew McConaughey
Paul Geffen - Ian McShane