We Are Marshall tells the story of what happened to the town of Huntington, W.Va., on a November night 36 years ago.
You probably know already - from the commercials for the movie, if nothing else. Indeed, the film knows you know what happened, so its velvety, lyrical opening adopts a somber narration and a floating ethereal God's-eye vantage, foreshadowing the pain around the bend for this close-knit mill community.
A woman's sad voice explains that Huntington runs along the Ohio River, resting in the southern crook where Ohio bumps West Virginia. It is lined with fading refineries and one of those typical miniature Midwestern downtowns where every third storefront holds an actual store. (The film was shot in Huntington this year, and our assumption is that not much has changed in 36 years.) The camera glides over to the hub of Huntington, Marshall University, then to a giant stone fountain and its sculpted waters, a monument to those who died.
We Are Marshall feels truest when it considers the toll of tragedy, when it deals honestly with the reason it became a film to begin with - and digs into, as a character puts it, "the messiness of grief." But director McG (of the single-word name, of those Charlie's Angels flicks) does not quite grasp human suffering yet. He knows to step out of the way of a smart cast, but doesn't step away nearly enough, and it's a film trapped between somewhat conflicting purposes, to mourn the dead and inspire the living.
See, what happened was that the Marshall University football team, returning to Huntington after a narrow loss, died in a plane crash - nearly the entire team, most of the coaches, a handful of Huntington friends and family members. The plane crashed in a fog. Seventy-five people died.
There are local connections.
As told in a Blade article recently, the next Marshall coach, Jack Lengyel (played by Matthew McConaughey), came to St. Francis de Sales High School in Toledo and recruited Toledoan Sam Botek, Jr. (not identified in the film). Also, the University of Toledo had played Marshall (and won, 52-3) about a month before the disaster. James Schroer, an assistant trainer at UT, had resigned a year earlier to become the head trainer for Marshall; he died in the crash. The plane's crew had family in Fremont. And Blade articles from 1970 reverberate with an incident from 10 years earlier: In 1960, after a game at Bowling Green State University, 22 people died when a plane crashed at Toledo Express Airport. It was carrying the California State Polytechnic University football team. There's resonance here.
Before the players in the movie climb aboard that fateful flight, a coach even chastises them for sloppy play: "I understand giving up 300 yards to Bowling Green. But to East Carolina University?"
I feared McG - king of the hyperkinetic, glib montage - would use the crash for cheap effect. But restraint is in his bag of tricks. Instead, there's a sick feeling, and some longing looks that are a bit purple. (This is one of those movies where everyone seems to know something bad is about to happen but no one can just say it.) Generally, though, the crash and the town's mad scramble to the airport, carries that shock of the unimaginable.
We Are Marshall is really two movies: the first a memorial to a town where wounds that deep never heal, and the second, a sincere football film, a lot like Invincible and Gridiron Gang, or any football picture where amateurs struggle to reach their potential. It's a tough combination to make work, not impossible, but very intricate - or at least, beyond the capabilities of McG.
Which is perhaps why McConaughey, who tends to act with his ego out front, is so much more welcome here than in nearly everything else he's been in lately. He plays Lengyel as a bit of a nut. Sitting on his porch in Wooster, Ohio (just west of Canton), he calls the university president (David Strathairn) and lands the job by default - no one else is dumb enough to rebuild a team many people don't want to see play for a long while.
"A new Marshall team would be a weekly reminder of what we've lost," someone says, but that's why Lengyel (and especially McConaughey) is perfect.
His hair is slicked down. He pulls at his collar, walks with a hunch, speaks out of the side of his mouth, the actor's native Texas twang poking out in places. But his odd rhythms clash so obviously with the hushed town that he's not only great for the movie, he's what a place so balled up in pain needs - he doesn't feel the need to lash out or get self-righteous.
For once - for the first time since his memorably funny debut in 1994's Dazed and Confused - McConaughey's natural screwballishness is used correctly by a director. (A side note, though, to stylists who do vintage hair in '70s-based films: Do old yearbooks have to be the template?) But I look in my notebook and notice I wrote two separate times "Will this go deeper?" The film's approach to mood is pure jukebox - when things are looking up, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," and when a new day is dawning, the bittersweet "Ventura Highway."
Matthew Fox (of Lost, sporting bad red hair) shows promise as a big-screen presence; Ian McShane (of Deadwood) does what he can with an underwritten character; and the excellent Anthony Mackie (of 8 Mile and more recently, Half Nelson) remains one of the more persuasive young actors in movies. But the emotion rarely goes beyond a visual shorthand - forlorn glances at empty beds, the hopeful faces of beatific freckled children. And it's so respectful of the fallen players (who we never really meet) that it doesn't allow us to get close to the new guys.
We Are Marshall takes its title from the university's signature cheer, but there's more feeling in that than in the rest of the film. What it is missing is toughness. The question comes up that it's not the time to play football, that it might be too insensitive to the community. It's not a bad point. Regardless of what happened in real life (the team and the town rebuilt, but never recovered) the answer comes too easily, and too quickly, and runs roughshod over the shell-shocked movie it wants to be. Indeed, the answer comes straight out of the Hollywood playbook.