“We Are Marshall” is based on a true story that’s far more powerful and compelling than the film itself. The central premise — struggling to keep football alive in a grief-stricken town after 75 players, coaches and supporters died in a plane crash — provides a soulful twist on modern sports-movie conventions, as if “The Sweet Hereafter” met “Friday Night Lights.” As the clock winds down, though, director McG drifts from sensitivity into more predictable big-game histrionics. Taking the field during awards season, Warner Bros. might benefit from counter-programming with an emotional crowd-pleaser but should have difficulty mounting a sustained drive.
The Marshall U. team was returning from North Carolina to its home in the heart of West Virginia on Nov. 14, 1970, when tragedy struck the “Thundering Herd,” leaving a shattered community in its wake.
At first, university president Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) wants to suspend the football program, before an impassioned plea by one of the surviving players that, stirringly, enlists the entire student body to chant the title cheer as a resounding cry. At that point, it’s decided to recruit a coach and cobble together a team, even at the risk, as one survivor laments, of the games offering “a weekly reminder of what we’ve lost.”
So far, so good, and McG and writer Jamie Linden initially do an admirable job of capturing the mixture of pain and guilt assailing the town. The toll is especially fierce on those team members — such as assistant coach Red Dawson (“Lost’s” Matthew Fox) and standout player Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) — who, with maddening arbitrariness, were left behind.
The tone changes for the worse, however, with the arrival of Matthew McConaughey as the out-of-town coach riding to the rescue, Jack Lengyel. McConaughey might well be doing a dead-on impersonation of his real-life counterpart (and the production notes say they spent considerable time together), but the persistently upbeat result is an overly mannered turn that sounds too much like a used-car salesman, delivering dialogue in a clipped, halting fashion that’s frequently distracting.
Lengyel convinces Dedmon to petition the NCAA to grant freshmen eligibility to help Marshall field a team and must win over a variety of constituencies, from the reluctant Red to influential local citizen Paul Griffen (Ian McShane), whose son was among the flight’s casualties.
Unlike most sports stories, the real accomplishment for Marshall, the film suggests, is playing at all — that simple act representing a fitting tribute to the fallen, as opposed to Red’s contention that they are merely collecting “pity applause” from other schools.
Yet despite that “It’s not whether you win or lose” mentality, McG keeps veering toward football cliches, from the montage in which Lengyel assembles his squad to a climactic game that employs slow-motion so liberally as to suck the life from the sequence, which begins to feel as if it’s being played in real time. Only fleetingly, too, does the film explore the larger importance of football to this small town, in the way that “Friday Night Lights” did so deftly as a movie and now a TV series.
Somewhat offsetting these deficiencies is a strong supporting cast, including Fox, Strathairn and “Deadwood’s” McShane as the wounded father with nowhere to direct his suffering. Not surprisingly in these spartan environs, the womenfolk leave less of an impression, though Kate Mara is touching as a waitress who lost her fiance.
In re-creating the era, pic makes nimble use of its ’70s soundtrack and McConaughey’s extremely unfortunate sideburns, as well as a historical synopsis over the closing credits that lends additional resonance to the story. Full of good intentions, “We Are Marshall” has a game plan that’s hard to fault, but as with any playbook, a scheme is only as good as how well it’s executed.