"(PG-13) Three stars
One of the worst disasters in the history of American sports occurred in 1970 when a plane crash wiped out 37 members of the Marshall University football team, along with most of the coaching staff and a lot of team boosters. This fact-based tale deals with the efforts to keep the football program going in the face of the overwhelming grief felt by the people in the small West Virginia town of Huntington.
The film choked me up and held my interest throughout, but the further the story goes, the more the clichés pile up. As far as underdog sports movies go, there are many that are better than this one. Still, the first half of We Are Marshall is almost strong enough to make up for the so-so second half.
Director McG (pronounced McGee, and boy, the cute spelling and one-word name business is annoying), the man with the short attention span who did the two Charlie’s Angels movies, presents the buildup to the disaster and its early aftermath effectively. Later, his music video background takes over as the movie becomes less an examination of grief and the human spirit and more just another montage-filled sports tearjerker.
But the cast is solid all the way through. Matthew McConaughey gives an enjoyably quirky performance as new coach Jack Lengyel, an optimistist and a bit of a flake. A few years ago, police responding to a noise complaint entered McConaughey’s home and found him stark naked playing the bongos, partying with a friend. I like when he incorporates that pleasantly whacked-out side of his personality into his acting and you can see hints of it here.
David Strathairn is memorable as overwhelmed and oft-befuddled university President Dedmon, Matthew Fox does good work as Red Dawson, the sole surviving member of the coaching staff (check out the scene when he strides angrily off the field — great sustained shot, strong acting), and Anthony Mackie rises above the obvious as Nate Ruffin, the player who sparks the movement to save the program.
We Are Marshall is nothing new, but it contains enough that is special that fans of the genre should consider giving it a look.