Not content with the usual “based on real events” approach, McG’s (I can’t help the name, that’s how he signs his films) We Are Marshall opens by boldly proclaiming, “This is a true story.” I have no doubt that the essential facts in the case are true. And I have no doubt that the resulting film will find ready favor with Marshall University and the area of West Virginia in which it takes place. Its incredible earnestness guarantees that. Similarly, I don’t dispute that the 1970 plane crash that killed the bulk of the Marshall team and its coach was a tragedy, nor do I argue with the idea of bringing the story to the screen.
However, that doesn’t mean that the resulting film is good. Movies don’t — or at least they shouldn’t — get free passes simply because of the worthiness of the source material. That, however, is what the makers of We Are Marshall seem to be betting on. And considering the Internet responses to anyone who doesn’t love the film (to not love it is to disrespect the dead), there’s every chance that’s a safe bet.
The odd thing is that I’m hard-pressed to see exactly how the film itself honors the dead. Consider: We Are Marshall spends maybe 10 minutes of its running time dealing with the team that was on that plane, barely sketching them in as anything other than the guys we know who are about to die (this is assuming we know the story, and the film clearly does assume that). For that matter, the film eschews the crash itself by tactfully cutting away before it happens. (Presumably, this is on the grounds of tastefulness, and only a cynic would note that it’s also a lot cheaper this way.) The bulk of the film actually honors not so much the dead as it honors the town’s response to those deaths — and it does this in the most cliched and unrealistic manner imaginable.
To judge by the film, the entire town of Huntington, W. Va., lives, sleeps, eats, breathes (and whatever other bodily function you care to name) football — specifically Marshall University football. OK, the whole town was likely shaken by the tragedy, but it’s difficult to believe that everyone in a town of about 50,000 people is obsessed with football and a single team, and that everyone defines himself or herself through this team. It can be argued, of course, that We Are Marshall is only showing us those people who do feel this way, but in so doing it paints a picture that rings as false accidentally as the idealized imagery at the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) rings false deliberately. This should not be the tone for a movie that heralds itself as a true story.
But apart from this, there’s the fact that the film is ultimately an assemblage of every underdog sports movie ever made — complete with a veritable bombardment of lump-in-the-throat crane shots where the camera rises to a god-like height while Christophe Beck’s syrupy score swells on the soundtrack. When the camera isn’t ascending into the stratosphere, it tends to prowl around at a funereal pace underlining the deadly serious importance of the events. The results feel like a high-minded TV film (there are even places in its structure for the eventual insertion of commercials).
In addition, despite its true-story underpinnings, the characters are largely undefined, or defined by one trait. For instance, there’s the guilt-wracked player (Brian Geraghty, Bobby) who overslept and missed the ill-fated flight. That’s his sole characterization. Even so, he has more solidity than that afforded the film’s main character, Coach Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), who boasts quirky mannerisms where his characterization ought to be. It’s a surface portrayal only. By the end of the film you know exactly as much about Lengyel as you do when you first see him — he loves football, he wears truly ugly (even for 1971) sport coats, he plasters his hair down with what the adverts used to call “greasy kid stuff” and sports period sideburns. Just why he wants the job of resurrecting the Marshall team is still a mystery, save for the possibility that his appearance and bearing make gainful employment a rarity.
Instead, the film focuses on the embittered character of Paul Griffen (Ian McShane, Scoop), whose son died in the crash. Griffen doesn’t want the team rebuilt and spends most of the film evidencing an unhealthy obsession with his late son’s fiancee (Kate Mara, Zoom). (Not since Tallulah Bankhead imprisoned Stephanie Powers back in 1965 in Die! Die! My Darling! has a parent been this fixated on the fiancee of a deceased offspring.) The only decently drawn character is Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie, Half Nelson), a player who wasn’t on the flight because of an injury, whose position in the film is to fight for the continuation of the football program. He feels real in a way that no one else does in this Pavlovian exercise in moviemaking. Rated PG for emotional thematic material, a crash scene and mild language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke