Yet another uplifting sports movie in what seems an endless stream of them, “We Are Marshall” ups the ante by being based on a real-life tragedy rather than the usual bland narrative of an individual or team simply succeeding against the odds. The picture tells the story of the miraculous rebirth of football at West Virginia’s Marshall University after almost its entire team and coaching staff, as well as a substantial number of its boosters, were killed in a plane crash in November, 1970. According to Jamie Linden’s script, school president Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) originally intended to shut down the program, but one of the few remaining players, Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), who hadn’t made the out-of-town trip because of an injury that sidelined him, rallies the students and townspeople to demand the decision be reversed, despite opposition from grieving town bigwig Paul Griffen (Ian McShane), whose son and wife died in the crash.
Dedmon relents, but finds it difficult to secure the services of a coach. The former assistant, Red Dawson (Michael Fox), who miraculously escaped death by going on a recruiting trip instead of his boss and blames himself for doing so, has retreated to private life, and every outsider Dedmon approaches quickly declines. But a candidate comes from out of the blue: Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), a brash oddball who feels a sense of mission in putting together a team from virtual scratch in order to help revive the school and the town. He entices Dawson back as his assistant, recruits a stable of untested new players, enlists Dedmon in a difficult but ultimately successful effort to get the NCAA to allow him to field freshman players, and then molds his young squad into a real team–thus allowing the locality to rise about their numbing grief and do real honor to the dead by rising from the ashes, even if the team doesn’t win. Of course they do, at least once in the opening home game, thus providing a rousing finale.
This is obviously formulaic stuff, but the story’s grounding in real tragedy gives it undeniable power, and initially the combination of Fox, Strathairn and McShane–all quite good–keep it movingly credible despite the slickness that director McG and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut impose on the material, the fact that Mackie looks too old for his role and never finds quite the right pitch in playing it, and the usual problem that this is yet another cinematic university where academics seem to play no role whatever. (Such institutions are legion on the big screen.) But things go completely awry when McConaughey enters the picture. Perhaps Lengyel was the sort of peculiarly colorful dude presented here (the coach, after all, actually served as a technical advisor on the movie), but what the actor seems to be doing is a weird imitation of Woody Harrelson. It’s more a vaudeville routine than a performance, complete with funnyman sports coats (a repeat of the Kurt Russell gag from “Miracle”) and a delivery that resembles nothing more than the practiced spiel of a carnival barker. Simply put, it’s impossible to accept this guy as a real person, and his presence turns the movie away from poignancy to a brand of low-brow comedy that seems out of place given the premise.
And then there’s the big finale, the game that, against all odds, the “Thundering Herd,” as the MU players are nicknamed, actually have a last-minute chance to win. Choreographed with every trick in the book and milked for every drop of emotion it can muster, even more than McConaughey’s misguided performance it transforms what might have been a unusually incisive take on an overused formula into something not only generic but tediously so. In the end, despite being based on an actual episode, “We Are Marshall” feels as though it could be set anywhere, and an authentic and specific story of grit and grace in the face of tragedy has been Hollywoodized–or more properly, bastardized. A shame, indeed.