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We Are Marshall

You know how it begins and you know how it ends, but We Are Marshall will still make a sports fan cheer. Its still the same old triumph against the odds, but it's a solid version of that.


Tragedy strikes the Marshall University community when a plane crash claims the lives of most of the football team, coaches and some fans. With the whole town traumatized, university president Donald Dedmond (David Strathairn) thinks it's best to cancel the football program, but remaining players, led by Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), rally the school to support continuing the team's honor. Of course, nobody wants to coach in these circumstances--that is until rogue bad boy Jake Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) asks for the job. Along with surviving assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), they build the team back up. Just putting the team back together raises the town's spirits but getting back the winning record is another story. This could have easily been a sappy tearjerker, but it sticks to the high road for the most part. There are some sad scenes (i.e., the cheerleader [Kate Mara] returning the engagement ring her dead boyfriend gave her to his mourning daddy) but otherwise, the focus is on moving ahead.


Just about every actor gets at least one big moment to cry. That's a given in a story of this nature, and some of them are better than others. Mackie's stoic attempt to take punches in an injured shoulder is full of passion, but Fox's random breakdown is, well, just like a flashback from Lost. He is better on the field, showing us a side to his personality we haven't seen yet. Strathairn seems the most sympathetic as the pained authority figure making tough decisions. Mara (Brokeback Mountain) looks so innocent you just want to hold her hand and stroke her hair every time she wells up. Aside from that, there's also a lot of personality in the film. McConaughey leads the team with a gleam in his eye and a smirk on his lips, but it never comes across as insensitive. He's hip, so of course he's the one who can lead them out of tragedy. And as an ensemble film, the cast comes together as a community, in which a single tragedy can affect them all, and a single victory can give them hope.


McG totally restrains his bombastic Charlie's Angels style of filmmaking for this character piece. Just about the only noticeably fancy shot is a dissolve from Mara looking up at the plane to her boyfriend staring out the airplane window. It's a moving moment because we know what is coming, and it does not call too much attention to the filmmaking process. McG knows how to do some great montages, too. Recruiting the new players, running the drills--they're all full of visual moments set to a rocking soundtrack. Most importantly, he handles the tragedy with class and doesn't deliberately try to jerk tears. The plane crashes with only a single jump and a fade to black, but the wreckage burns through our hearts. Instead, McG shows there's a way to honor the dead, to take back a community's pride and let life go on without disrespecting any of the departed. The football games in We Are Marshall are filmed with visceral impacts, pretty much the way most sports movies are. There's no Friday Night Lights grit but that's fine. These games are about telling a story, not exposing the seedy underbelly of the sport.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 1/2 stars.