In 1970, after losing a hard fought game, the coaches, team, and boosters of Marshall University Football boarded a plane to return to their West Virginia home. They never made it back. Crashing into nearby woods, everyone onboard was killed, leaving the town in a state of shock, and without a football program to rely on for community spirit. "We Are Marshall" tells the story of the team's troubled rebirth; led by Coach Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) and Assistant Coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), they fight to bring back life to a sport everyone had assumed was left for dead.
There are many moments during the football drama "We Are Marshall" that I wished had more carefully portrayed grief and resilience. This is a powerful story of loss and rebirth, and it plays strictly by the rules of mass-audience entertainment standards; a tear-jerker for Monday morning quarterbacks. It's mostly successful and emotionally seizing, but there are times when the picture veers into plastic, cornball territory without mercy.
"Marshall" marks a coming of age directing gig for McG, the widely loathed filmmaker who gave the world two "Charlie's Angels" films. Personally, I ate up his brand of hair-flip cinema with a smile and belly-slap, and found both movies to be the rare occasion when excess was the only possible route to take. Plus, I'm tickled that he's a filmmaker who takes an interest in colorful and bright, full-throated photography. Everyone else just wants to be moody and turtlenecked lately.
"Marshall" is going to surprise a majority of the McG hecklers out there. This is a reverential directorial job; McG aims to get down on his knees and feel the pain with the players, coaches, and anyone who was touched by the tragic accident. Considering the Jolt Cola spills of the "Angels" series, "Marshall" might feel like it's moving in slow motion. Working both on and off the football field, McG grabs the viewer with his attention to character nuances, and ability to stand back and let his actors feel their way through some difficult scenes that express insurmountable pain and regret.
"Marshall" has a tendency to play to the rafters, and found in other sport-themed smashes, this approach can do the trick. McG lets a couple of these moments get way out of hand, pushing the audience instead of creating a warm environment to follow. Only so many times chants of "We Are Marshall!" can be heard before it starts to feel manufactured.
The heart of the story is found in McConaughey's breathless performance, and he earns his spotlight here in an acting job that ranks up there with his best work. An intuitive, raw nerve type of actor, McConaughey lets it fly as Lengyel, and his enthusiasm is something to behold.
"We Are Marshall" ends with a big game, and plays up the big game formula shamelessly. It's a distraction from the grief, yet it feels as though McG is looking for a big way out of this movie. I would've preferred a much more metaphorical angle on the football footage, but that's not what makes people cheer. I comprehend McG's desire to please, but the there are layers of mourning still to be sorted through by the time the film abandons it for some last-second plays and miraculous touchdown possibilities.
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