When you want to read reviews on next generation video movies about dramatic interpretations of sports in the early 1970s, Judge Ryan Keefer is your man!
Our review of We Are Marshall, published October 1st, 2007, is also available.
From the ashes we rose.
McG has been known as a celebrated music video director before tackling the world of feature film. To his credit, he suffered through both Charlie's Angels films before deciding to take a serious turn with the sports drama We Are Marshall. Is it any good, and how doth it measure up to it's red and black cased counterparts?
Facts of the Case
The freshman writing team of Cory Helms and Jamie Linden put their minds together for the film, which is based on a true story. In November of 1970, the Marshall University football team lost a hard fought road game and were flying home when the plane carrying the football team, coaching staff and others crashed in West Virginia, killing all 75 people on board. Assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox, Lost) had given his seat to a friend so he could be home earlier with his family. Dawson was making a recruiting trip when he heard the news, and was even reported as one of the victims in the crash. The acting university president Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn, Sneakers) first thought about cancelling the program, in part due to then-restrictive NCAA rules on competition, but Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie, Half Nelson), one of a handful of players who didn't make the trip, urged the school to resume the program.
Enter Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey, Dazed and Confused). A football and lacrosse coach at a small Ohio college who called Dedmon unsolicited, offering his coaching services. Dedmon had been trying to contact alumni who politely declined the offer and gave the job to Lengyel. So the challenge of building a program from scratch began. The film focuses on the first two games after the tragedy, the 1971 season opener, and the first game back at home.
I've got a bit of a personal quandary here that I hope someone can help me with. I've been a practicing skeptic for some time, and that changed somewhat after I met and married the lovely Mrs. Keefer, but I feel like this could have been so much better than it was, and that it might actually be considered a bad film. Does me not liking this film much make me a bad person? The film's heart might be in the right area, but there are places in it that just seemed a bit out of place. I think that far too much was done to show the crash and to show that the team was lost. To show the team on the plane before it went down seems to come across as sensationalistic, just in the way it was done. There's a loud noise and a sudden cut to black, both of which seemed unnecessary to me. Besides, doesn't the real story start after the crash?
Then you have Lengyel's ordeal of trying to get a team to field, combined with Dedmon's efforts to petition the NCAA to allow freshman on the team. I recall Dedmon from his days as President of Radford University, and admittedly not knowing how he conducted himself a quarter century prior, I can tell you Strathairn seemed to portray the polar opposite. It's not bad, it's just different, considering how well-spoken and outgoing Dedmon seems to be in real life. As for Wooderson himself, McConaughey seems to be playing the role with good intentions and you could tell he could certainly be a coach who wanted his kids to do well, but he spoke with a facial mannerism that I didn't think Lengyel seemed to have in real life, one which made him out to be Holly Hunter circa 1987.
There are other things that seem to serve as needless distractions. Ian McShane (Deadwood) plays Paul Griffen, a powerful member of the community who lost his son on the ill-fated flight. He served as the film's antagonist where one wasn't necessarily warranted. It's not to say that these events didn't happen the way they're shown, they very well might have, but in a film where you would expect dramatic liberties to be taken, making a childless parent a pseudo-enemy for creative purposes seems a bit inflammatory.
As for McG, the man who created enough quick cuts that it could give someone a seizure, he actually shows quite a bit of restraint. He lets the scenes play out organically and that benefits the film, and when he does go into "McG mode," it's done with modesty and tact. A scene at the end goes to a montage of all the events that had happened over the previous ten months, and really shows that he can do the material justice when called upon. I was somewhat impressed by this.
Warner has been consistently using the VC-1 codec on its HD DVD and Blu-ray transfers, and this is no different. The 2.40:1 widescreen presentation looks decent, with the image presenting a good deal of depth in many of the shots in the film. I was a little bit annoyed at the push of yellows through the film, but that's more stylistic than anything else. The Dolby TrueHD track is a little bit more robust, although the dialogue seemed a bit weak on the center channel which was distracting.
The extras are ports from the standard and high definition discs, which is to say that there's very little to speak of. Aside from a five minute PSA on the merits of West Virginia with testimonials from the film's stars, there's a half hour look at college coaching from its hallowed figures. "Legendary Coaches" receives an introduction from McG, wearing a shirt and tie that is a little bit hilarious if you ask me. From there, football's Bobby Bowden, basketball's John Wooden and Pat Summit and baseball's George Horton discuss their concepts in team building, what it takes to be a good coach and the legacy they would like to leave upon their departure. Lengyel also appears and discusses the events in minor detail as well. It is a little bit interesting, but I would have liked to see more on the disc, because aside from these two things, the film's trailer and a Marshall-specific promotion of sorts are what's left.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Quite frankly, I wanted the film to go in a direction that focused more on those that were "left behind." When it focused on that, or more specifically, on the scenes with Red and/or Nate, I was impressed. I really like how Mackie's performance transformed from one of strength to showing some vulnerability in a touching scene with McConaughey. In another scene, Mackie resists being pulled from the game, but Fox talks him out of it and explains why. Fox also sits by himself at the end of the film and exhibits his own emotions in another powerful scene. I would have liked to see more of that and less of the stereotypical feel good sports film stuff.
Films like We Are Marshall are made with the best intentions in mind, but when it comes to execution, seem to lose a lot of bloom on the rose. The performances from the lesser recognizable names are better than a couple of the stars in the film, and technically the film looks and sounds fine, but the story flounders a bit. If you're not familiar with the story of the Thundering Herd, this is a decent jumping off point nonetheless.
Marshall (save for Helms and Linden) is…not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Legendary Coaches" Featurette
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