Tuesday, September 25, 2007

We Are Marshall

Director: McG
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, Anthony Mackie, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, Kate Mara

Running Time: 124 min.

Rating: PG

*** (out of ****)

Occasionally you hear on the news or read in the paper the story of someone who narrowly cheated death. They were supposed to be at a certain place at a certain time and through fate, chance or maybe just dumb luck they weren't. They may have forgotten something at home or slept in. Whatever the reason, they missed that flight or drive. Because of this they're alive. Others were not as fortunate. The first 45 minutes of We Are Marshall explores exactly how that must feel and it's difficult to watch. If you can make it past this point of the film without your thoughts shifting once to Virginia Tech then I commend you. I couldn't.

The film tells the true story of the crash of Southern Airways Flight 932 on November 14th, 1970 that killed thirty-seven players and six coaches from Marshall University's Thundering Herd football team. Before the team boards the plane, Marshall head coach Rick Tolley (Robert Patrick) gives them a speech about how "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." By the end of the film we realize just how hollow that statement rings. Yes, this is an uplifting, inspirational sports movie that ends with "a big game," but this time the stakes feel different and it means more. It's the rare sports film that only makes a few missteps and it could have ranked among the best in the genre, if not for one glaring problem: the miscasting of a major star in a role he can't handle and has no business playing. Nor does he seem to have any comprehension of how he should play it.

What saves the movie are the supporting performances, including a great one from a television actor who proves he can quit his day job and have a successful career on the big screen if he wants it. It's a movie that's actually about something important and tells a story that needs to be told, which is rare these days. We Are Marshall opens with this plane crash and it's horrifying. Horrifying not for what it shows, but what it doesn't. In fact, we don't even see it, which is far more effective and emotionally troubling. Just the thought of it is worse than anything that could have been depicted on screen. The real shock and horror comes when news of the crash hits and the close-knit college community of Huntington, West Virginia is forced to deal with it.

In the wake of this mourning a question no one feels like answering hovers over the University: Do they suspend the football program at Marshall or try to rebuild it? Fielding a team with no chance of winning could seem disrespectful to the victims and their families. Or, just taking the field could be seen as a triumph over adversity and a touching tribute to the fallen players. Marshall University President Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) votes for the former and has no plans for a 1971 season, but his mind is changed by one of the surviving players, Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie, in a powerful performance). He missed the trip due to injury and organizes a rally to get a new team off the ground. The obstacles in doing so are nearly insurmountable, chief among them an NCAA regulation preventing the school from playing freshman.

There's also the challenge of finding anyone who would want to coach this team. One man who has little interest in the job is Red Dawson (Lost's Matthew Fox), the assistant coach who at the last minute gave up his seat on the plane to the athletic director, opting instead to go on a recruiting trip. He's being eaten alive by guilt and grief, with little desire left to coach football again. Enter the energetic and eccentric Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), who seems to be the only man crazy enough to want to do the job. He lures back Dawson and the rebuilding begins, much to the dismay of Paul Griffen (Ian McShane), a prominent University supporter who lost his son in the tragic crash. That son also left behind a girlfriend, Annie (Kate Mara) who's having her own problems adjusting to life after the accident.

This film explores rougher terrain than most other sports movies because it's faced with the added burden of telling this true story accurately, but sensitively as well. It succeeds…until McConaughey shows up. Talking out of the side of his mouth like a ventriloquist on speed, he appears more interested in auditioning for the sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? than giving a serious performance in a film dealing with a national tragedy. Supposedly, McConaughey spent a lot of time with the real Jack Lengyel making sure he got every aspect of the portrayal just right. I've never seen Lengyel and have no idea how he talks, nor do I care. That's not important. What I do care about is that this performance is completely inappropriate and distracting in this film. Didn't someone think to tell McConaughey that it would be far more effective if he tried to capture the essence and personality of the man rather than resorting to physical imitation?

The director, McG, has to at least be held somewhat accountable for not reigning in McConaughey's annoying mannerisms and inflections. It's not that I think he's a bad actor necessarily, but he's one of those performers that have so much charisma that when they go overboard it can really turn into a disaster quickly. His cartoonish mugging for the camera may seem cute to the ladies in a romantic comedy but it's completely uncalled for here. Because he has so much charisma and can be likeable in the right role some may find his work here goofy and endearing, a nice respite from the gloom and doom surrounding the story. I found it idiotic and distracting. If you can't stand McConaughey as an actor I'm giving you advanced warning because he's in rare form here.

Luckily, when Lengyl actually takes the field to coach McConaughey's histrionics settle down at least a notch or two. Matthew Fox, on the other hand, gives a performance that's not only completely appropriate, but moving, only made that much more admirable in the face of his co-star's scene chewing theatrics. Dealing with the aftermath of a tragic plane crash isn't exactly unfamiliar territory for him as an actor, but you can literally see the grief of this community and the entire nation on his face. Justifiably, and much to my relief, the focus of the film does start to shift back onto Fox's character and away from McConaughey's toward the final act.

As distracting as McConaughey is, it's not fair for me to punish everyone else who worked so hard on this film because of his misguided effort. Many will be surprised a director who calls himself McG and is best known for helming The Charlie's Angels films actually restraint and class with this material and Jamie Linden's script is respectful. In what must be a bid for artistic credibility, McG beautifully photographs and perfectly captures the mood and feel of 1970's West Virginia right down to the clothes and music. Just about the only spot where the movie steps wrong is during a consecutive five minute stretch when the soundtrack is overloaded with nearly every top 40 song from the 70's. We hear Cat Stevens, Crosby Stills and Nash, Black Sabbath, Credence Clearwater Revival and many more I'm sure I'm missing. Great music, but my thoughts should be on the story, not how many third world countries can be fed with amount of money spent to acquire the rights to use these songs.

Unlike most other sports movies, when sentiment and cliches are piled on here I didn't consciously notice it and instead was just mostly engulfed in this story. So much so that at a lengthy 124 minutes the film didn't feel a single second overlong to me, which is an accomplishment considering I usually can't stand sports movies. I kept waiting for the movie to introduce soapy, unnecessary sub-plots but it never happened as the focus was kept on this school and how they dealt with this tragedy and its ensuing moral dilemma. The tiniest details are handled right, like Lengyel's crazy idea to pay a visit to the coach of arch-rival West Virginia University. This coach's surprising reaction to Lengyel's insane request results in the most moving moment of the picture.

It was also nice to see a cheerleader in a football movie that isn't just there for romantic purposes or to be tossed around from player to player. Mara's character didn't end up going where I thought she would and it was one of those rare welcome cases where less was more. The bond she forms with her deceased boyfriend's bitter father was well handled with Mara, and especially McShane, giving good performances. Strathairn, an exceptional actor who's been sleepwalking through supporting roles way beneath him for the past couple of years, finally gets a good one here and you'll need a heart of stone to not at least be somewhat affected by his character's passionate dedication to the school.

This is the first time I can remember knocking off a full star rating for a single actor's performance in a film, which probably isn't something McConaughey should be bragging about the next time he hits the beach. It's a testament to the quality of the film that there's still so much to recommend despite it. A failure at the box office during its theatrical run this film currently carries a very high 7.3 rating at the moment on the internet movie database, which isn't surprising given it's a real audience pleaser. Anyone who's a fan of sports movies should find even more to enjoy here than others.

I'm with everyone else who has grown weary and skeptical whenever seeing a trailer for a new movie that presents sports as some kind of metaphor for life. This may be one of those, but if it is, it sure doesn't feel like it. It's about more than just winning the big game. It isn't even about winning any game. Every time I turn on the news it seems there's a new story about gambling referees, cheating coaches or steroid abusers. As someone who's really lost interest in sports lately it was nice to see a movie that reminds us why we watch and play them to begin with. I could probably count on one hand the amount of sports movies I've actually liked. We Are Marshall would be included among them.

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