We Are Marshall has plenty of heart. Unfortunately, that heart is dipped in a vat of caramel and topped with marshmallows.
It’s based on the true story of Marshall Plane Crash of 1970, when a chartered jet carrying Marshall University’s football team, coaching staff and prominent boosters went down in the Appalachian Mountains, killing all aboard. It was a tragedy by any measure, but in a small southern town where football meant everything, it was positively devastating.
The movie opens with the crash and the despair that follows it. As the Marshall community struggles to come to grips with the tragedy, University President Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) prepares to cancel the football program indefinitely – and perhaps permanently. When a group of Marshall students convinces him to reconsider, Dedmon, whose knowledge of the game is minimal, is suddenly tasked with building an entire football team from scratch.
His first task is to find a head coach. Not surprisingly, Dedmon’s search is initially futile. No coach is interested in heading a program with so many challenges and such a morbid past. Just as things appear utterly hopeless, along comes Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey, sporting the same haircut he donned for Dazed and Confused), a bright-eyed outsider from a tiny college in Wooster, Ohio. Part coach, part snake-oil salesman (picture Harold Hill from “The Music Man”), Lengyel possesses a passion for the job that overrides his dubious credentials.
From there, We Are Marshall plays more or less like a standard underdog sports movie. Lengyel encounters various roadblocks in his attempt to rebuild the program: an inflexible NCAA, numerous recruiting challenges and resistance from prominent boosters. But he presses forward with the help of assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), the only Marshall coach left from before the crash (he was on a recruiting trip when the plane went down). Together, they ultimately succeed in patching together a respectable football team in time for the 1971 season. The team isn’t going to win any championships, but that’s not the point.
We Are Marshall is an inspiring story, to be sure, but director McG (Charlie’s Angels, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle) amps up just about every aspect of the movie in an effort to tap into the audience’s emotions. “Manipulative” is too harsh a word to describe his approach; McG is obviously respectful toward the material and earnest in his ambition to tell the story right. While it has some wonderful moments, the movie as a whole feels overdone: overwrought, overacted, overly sentimental.
A perfect example of this comes at the end of the film when, in the closing seconds of the team’s pivotal first home game since the crash, the quarterback heaves a pass toward a receiver open in the end zone. As the football flies through the air in slow motion, McG inserts a montage that cycles through every pivotal moment in the movie, just in case we’d forgotten everything that happened before. It’s simply unnecessary.
The cast, tasked largely with one-dimensional roles, is serviceable. The only standout performance comes from McConaughey, who adds just enough shadiness to his role to set him apart from the standard coaching cliché.
I have no doubt that We Are Marshall will be warmly received by folks associated with the tragedy of 1970. It’s a well-meaning tribute to both those who died and to those who helped rebuild the team – and the community – afterward. As a movie, however, it’s a flawed effort that falls short of its noble ambitions.
We Are Marshall opens Christmas 2006.