What is it about the sports genre that has recently made it so difficult for directors and screenwriters to crack the code separating rousing entertainment from uninspired mediocrity? There have been a few solid football movies this decade2000's "Remember the Titans
," 2004's "Friday Night Lights
"but one would have to venture all the back to 1993's "Rudy" to find a deserved classic. And so, while the television spin-off of "Friday Night Lights" struggles in the ratings despite unquestionably being the best sports-themed dramasmall-screen or big-screenin thirteen years, cinemagoers must deal with syrupy, vapid, unfocused yarns like "We Are Marshall."
In one respect, the film is difficult to hate because its genesis does clearly come from a pure placeit's based on a tragic 1970 plane crash that claimed the lives of most of the coaches and players of the West Virginia-based Marshall University football team. No matter how earnest the intentions are, however, the harsh truth is that "We Are Marshall" is shockingly empty, one-dimensionally written, and finally unconvincing. Things get off to a promising start with a voiceover narration from college student Annie (Kate Mara) that discusses over idyllic establishing shots the geography and rituals that give the blue-collar town of Huntington, West Virginia, its identity. From there comes the final game played by the teammates of Marshall's Thundering Herd football team before they take off on a flight from Greenville, North Carolina, that will never reach its destination in West Virigina.
So far, so good, but once the unthinkable strikes and Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) enters the picture as the ailing team's new head coach who sets out to recruit new players for the upcoming season, the film loses sight of what it should be about. Piling on clichés, tedious music montages, and nonexistent characterizations, the picture's real-life relevancy is lost so that it can just be another random, throwaway sports flick that, curiously, has almost no football scenes until the finale. When the themes return near the end involving the effects the plane crash has had on those close to the ill-fated passengers, they arrive too late, aiming for maudlin tearjerker moments that are in no way, shape or form earned.
Director McG, who proved to have a smart, savvy handle on mixing crisp storytelling, well-formed characters and nonstop music in 2000's "Charlie's Angels
" and 2003's "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle
," displays none of these things in "We Are Marshall." Song choices from the late-'60s/early-'70s era are fine yet perfunctory, with most of them just thrown into countless montage sequences that wear out their welcome immediately. A great soundtrack can enhance a motion picture, but it shouldn't be relied upon to replace simple things like character development and viewer involvement in the plot.
The Marshall football players, both those before and after the crash, never come to life as people which the audience learns anything about. The only two on screen enough to be distinguishable are the two former players who were, by chance, not on the planeNate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) and Tom Bogdan (Brian Geraghty)but their scenes are too infrequent to gain any dramatic mileage. Meanwhile, opening and closing narrator Annie, whose fiancé was killed in the tragedy, spends her scenes toiling away at the diner she works at and not being given any life outside of that. Kate Mara (2005's "Brokeback Mountain
") is so good as Annie that it's criminal she is forced into the background and forgotten about until the end.
Through the course of the running time, almost none of the protagonists are given their due as well-rounded individuals. Head coach Jack Lengyel is frustratingly malnourished from a writing standpoint; he has a wife (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and children so haphazardly handled that they make no impression, and, as played by Matthew McConaughey (2006's "Failure to Launch
") in an atypically uneven performance, appears as a not-all-there man with some screws loose upstairs rather than the authoritative figure he should be. Coming off an Oscar nomination for 2005's "Good Night, and Good Luck
," David Strathairn is wasted as the school's honorable dean Don Dedmon, while Ian McShane (2006's "Scoop
") squeezes out a couple affecting moments as the grieving father of one of the team's lost players.
Only Matthew Fox, as assistant coach Red Dawson, is given a character of depth to play, and even then he must contend with the recruiting and training and drinking montages that eat up valuable screen time. Unbelievably, this is Fox's first feature film role since 1993's "My Boyfriend's Back"his claim to fame has been on television in "Party of Five" and now "Lost"and his performance is head and shoulders above everyone else's. Red is torn apart on the inside from the guilt he feels for swapping places at the last minute with a colleague who got on the plane, and simultaneously grapples with whether or not he feels it is right to press on with a football team struck with such devastation. Fox impresses whenever he gets a chance to explore these feelings, which isn't often, and a late scene that he plays in an empty locker room is beautifully performed despite being terribly out of place and awkwardly staged.
Not hard-hitting enough to be a human-based drama about overcoming loss and lacking in the football scenes needed to be a satisfactory sports film, "We Are Marshall" relies on cloying, overbearing musical orchestrations to manipulate viewers into feeling a certain way. Director McG is untrusting of his actors and the authentic emotions of the situations, and this is where he falls into a hole he cannot pull himself out of. The theatrical trailer for "We Are Marshall" is inspiring and touching, painting lofty expectations for a movie that has more depth and feeling in this two-and-a-half-minute ad than the film has in all of its two hours-plus. The true story of the fall and subsequent rise of Marshall University's football team is worth being told, but the finished product fails to bring appropriate justice to it.