Moving sports drama marks restrained change of pace for Charlie's Angels helmer McG

We Are Marshall

on December 22, 2006 by Wade Major
The annals of sports history are rife with tragic air disasters — the 1958 Munich crash that killed seven Manchester United players and the 1987 crash that killed 17 members of Peruvian soccer club Alianza being two of the most significant. But the 1970 crash that took the lives of 75 Marshall University football players, coaches and fans remains virtually without equal — it is, by all accounts, the most horrendous loss endured by any athletic organization in history.

That typically makes for instant movie fodder, which this story was originally to have been. But three-and-a-half decades of reflection have been for the better, for while We Are Marshall is hardly a brilliant movie, it does succeed where it most needs to by honoring the memory of the dead in a manner that is both heartfelt and dignified.

Directed with surprising restraint and finesse by Charlie's Angels helmer McG from a workmanlike script and story by first-time feature scribes Jamie Linden and Cory Helms, the picture is first and foremost a portrait of the fragility of small-town life and the way in which a community like that of Huntington, W.V., can come apart at the seams even as it struggles to cope. Despite the feeling in some quarters that a resurrected football program would be inappropriate, the school's athletic director (David Strathairn) opts to push ahead, enlisting a quirky coach named Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) to take the unenviable task. It's a job that requires him to coax concessions from the NCAA, sweet-talk opposing coaches, adopt some radically unorthodox coaching strategies as well as deal with the maelstrom of conflicted emotions besetting students, educators and fans.

McConaughey is arguably the film's most valuable asset — the one element that sets it apart from countless other fact-based sports films that have endeavored to tap the very same emotions. The magnitude of the real-life tragedy is also something of a double-edged sword — an easy emotional hook that could just as easily be overplayed or unduly exploited. McG clearly wants to shed his wild and crazy music-video image (though not enough to use a normal name), which leads, at times, to avoidable melodramatic excess. But McConaughey will have none of it, consistently charming the film back on its feet like the jokester who won't stand for a frown. Even still, there's a nuanced humanity to his eccentricity, a carefully modulated quirkiness that works like a kind of emotional ballast. And that gives extensive leeway to his esteemed costars — Ian McShane, Matthew Fox, Anthony Mackie and Kate Mara — to do some of their best recent work as well.

Filmgoers who have enjoyed previous films along the same lines — Rudy, Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights, Invincible — will be the most reliable audience this time around as well, along with any lingering cynics that Warner Bros. might be able to coax with some savvy marketing. Doubters won't necessarily be overwhelmed, but they certainly won't be disappointed. Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, Anthony Mackie, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, Kate Mara, January Jones, Kimberly Williams-Paisley and Brian Geraghty
Director: McG
Screenwriter: Jamie Linden
Producers: Basil Iwanyk and McG
Genre: Sports drama
Rating: PG for emotional thematic material, a crash scene, and mild language
Running time: 127 min.
Release date: December 22, 2006

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