Warner Bros. // 2007 // 131 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Mike MacNeil (Retired) // October 1st, 2007
From the ashes we rose.
Inspirational sports movies are a cinematic tradition. Movies have told stories about vastly different types of athletic competitions that take place all over the world, but an awful lot of these films seem to have a lot in common. Let's run through the list:
* The coach from out of town with unorthodox teaching methods...
* The underdog athletes that must learn to come together as a team.
* The dedicated-to-a-fault captain of the team.
* The aging man behind the team's finances, who is originally skeptical of the team but soon becomes one of their biggest fans.
* The athletes' relatives who are battling their own personal demons.
* The dramatic speeches given by the coach to rally his team, which are inevitably accompanied by a rousing orchestral score designed to maximize the movie's chances of making someone cry.
Check, check, check, check, check, and check. Yes, We Are Marshall incorporates every sports movie cliché in the book. Used effectively, though, clichés can still be used to make a good movie. Does Marshall succeed? Well, kind of.
In 1970, a plane went down, killing almost every member of the Marshall University football team, with the exception of four players and assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), none of whom were on the flight. The surviving members, led by Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), are determined to rebuild the team. Soon out-of-towner Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) is brought on to coach and, by extension, to rehabilitate a mourning community.
We Are Marshall certainly wastes no time getting right down to business. The beginning of the movie sets up the original Marshall University football team ("The Herd") as heroes, diligently striving to win the game while the adoring fans back home crowd around their radios and cheer the boys. This is, of course, mere hours before the horrific plane crash. Everyone is so giddily happy that it's hard not to resent the blatant manipulation of the sequence, given the well-publicized premise of the movie, not to mention the fact that it really happened. That feeling of resentment bubbles up a lot over the course of the film. Often the movie strives for the maximum amount of drama, which is not an inherently bad thing, considering that it is in fact a drama, but the big emotional moments on the screen rarely resonate with the viewer. You're really just left to reflect upon the shameless manipulation of a real tragedy.
In fact, We Are Marshall boldly asserts that it's "A True Story" (as opposed to all those movies that are "inspired by" or "based on" true stories). Given the abundance of sports movie clichés and flowery motivational speechifying in the film, it's hard to affirm exactly how well that "True Story" was woven into the traditional formula that's obviously at work.
Luckily, there are a lot of quieter dramatic moments that do hit home, mostly thanks to Fox and Mackie, who are coping with the death of their recently deceased friends and teammates. Both actors do an excellent job at slowly revealing the full extent of the emotional suffering their characters have sustained. McConaughey gives the best he's got, and turns in a memorable performance as the Herd's enthusiastic new coach. As Lengyel, he gets some great scenes with his sons, a few little tykes that he seems to be training for NFL superstardom someday. Then there's the scene in which McConaughey and Fox confront their biggest rival, the coach of the West Virginia University team. I don't dare spoil it, but suffice it to say that the result is genuinely touching.
Picture and sound are excellent, most notably in the plane crash scene, though I did find myself turning down the volume for the music montages, of which there are quite a few. Director McG, best-known for the Charlie's Angels movies, did a lot of shooting in Huntington, West Virginia, and the location shots help keep the film grounded in reality. One of the DVD's extras is a tourism advertisement for West Virginia, featuring the stars of the movie. I hate to use the word "shameless" twice in a review, but the shoe fits. Or maybe it's the cleat.
I can't deny that We Are Marshall reeks of opportunism. And yes, it goes over the top in reaching for those big tearjerker moments. But, honestly, it's a Sports Movie. It works strictly within the confines of the formula that's been established over the years, and delivers exactly what you'd expect.
This court is wary of any movie that exploits tragedy for entertainment purposes, but We Are Marshall just barely squeaks by with the several glimmers of real emotional honesty in the film. Free to go.
Review content copyright © 2007 Mike MacNeil; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* "Legendary Coaches: How Coaches Overcome Adversity"
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site