I'm going to say some nice things about We Are Marshall, maybe more than it deserves, so a little explanation may be in order. I think the reason I'm so eager to give the film a passing grade is my shock at seeing a moderately well-directed film from McG, the director of Charlie's Angels infamy with the moniker so bland and compact it sounds like the DGA replacement for Alan Smithee. Sitting down to watch this film, I fully prepared myself for football scenes where players would defy the laws of gravity by running up the sides of the goal posts and drop-kicking each other after stopping in midair to do a crouching tiger pose. But that's not the case. This is a real movie, and a rare one, in that it shows football intersecting with reality. Most football movies tend to recreate the insular, world-within-a-world nature of the game itself; everything always comes down to a blowhard coach doing his best to convince his bulky and undisciplined players that victory on the gridiron will somehow endow them with honor, integrity, or transferable life lessons.
If you're immune to that kind of silly talk, then football isn't for you. We Are Marshall has its share of pep-talk baloney, but thankfully it's not the heart of the film. This is a story that begins with the main event -- a 1970 plane crash in West Virginia that takes out 37 members of Marshall University's football team, along with various coaches, assistants and twenty-two boosters, effectively ending the school's program in one terrible moment. Although most of the parents and school administrators are happy to let Marshall football rest in peace after such a catastrophe, a few dissenting voices begin to whisper about re-starting the program from scratch. Needless to say, success will depend on an angelic coach who appears out of nowhere and says exactly the right things to motivate the survivors to go along with his quest to resurrect the team. (Remember, I said the film was decent, not original or inventive) The balance that must be struck, between honoring so many dead and getting on with life, is a difficult one.
The coach is played by Matthew McConaughey, who deserves some credit for putting on a character at all. McConaughey's naturally old-school Southern swagger could have easily fit the mold of the good ol' boy coach he's asked to play, but he's not content to give us a version of himself. Instead he pulls out a true oddball, a man with an affected manner of speaking who chats up strangers about the most recent article he read in Redbook. He has the kind of unpredictable personality quirks that prompt a lot of nervous glances when his back is turned; he's a character who's interesting to watch even when the movie isn't. Other main figures in the plot include a nervous school administrator played by David Strathairn and the shipwrecked father of one of the dead athletes, played by granite-faced Ian McShane. The film's biggest deficit may be that these middle-aged actors provide all of the juice, while almost all of the college-aged characters are completely out of their depth, interchangeable and forgettable.
Simply put, Strathairn's character is for the rebuilding of the Marshall team, while McShane's character, Paul Griffen, is against it. Griffen is a man of unwavering routine who we are told has eaten at the same restaurant, presumably in the same booth, every day for thirty years. When his son is taken away from him suddenly, he disappears into his routine as a way of pretending that nothing substantial about his life has actually changed. Nevertheless, his explanation for why he won't support the effort to re-invent the Marshall football team -- he doesn't want a "weekly reminder" of his son's death -- is hard to argue with. Once the decision to go forward is made, the movie slowly begins to inch closer and closer to recognizable football-movie territory, with recruiting speeches, right-stuff montages, and statistics about winning and losing that float across the screen. Interestingly, one of the wrinkles of the true story that the film has a hard time swallowing is that the team, before the crash, was one of the worst in its division.
Although the film opens with that horrible crash -- we see nothing but a sudden, violent jolt inside the cabin followed by an immediate cut to black -- there's nothing sensational or exploitative that follows. The film was clearly produced with respect for the survivors in mind, and it strains to tell as many of their stories as possible. At times, the script seems pieced together from a thousand journal entries in the way it dissolves into little vignettes about who was doing what when the crash happened. Powerful visual touchstones are included throughout, like a University fountain that is turned off at the same time every year to commemorate the dead. We Are Marshall is a film that walks a tightrope with tricky subject matter, and somehow makes it to the other side. It may be nothing more than well-constructed melodrama, but that in itself is something. It's hard not to be moved by the film's signature line, which is uttered during a last-minute rally before the big game: "Funerals end today."