It’s at least twenty minutes before We Are Marshall clues the audience in on whether it’s a high school or college football team that’s dropped dead, and even then that little fact is said almost under a character’s breath and easily missed. One-named director McG’s movie approaches his story as if we’re already familiar with it, as if we all sit around reading about 70’s plane crashes and obsessing over college sports tragedies. Maybe if my name was McG I would do that (in fact I think that kind of knowledge probably comes pre-packaged with the name), but We Are Marshall will leave audience members with last names completely stranded. Maybe this will be Madonna’s favorite movie of the year.
The movie starts with a plane crash, which McG has wisely chosen not to show. Instead we see the team take off, and then McG ratchets up the tension as we sit inside the plane and watch them completely unaware of what’s about to happen, knowing that soon they’ll all be dead. There’s a jolt and the camera cuts away because after all, this isn’t a disaster movie, it’s a film about how the people left behind deal with an entire football team’s death. The team in question is the Marshall Thundering Herd, and on their way home from a loss, their plane goes down killing all 75 players, parents, and coaches aboard. We Are Marshall is about the tiny hometown they left behind, and their school’s struggle to honor them by continuing its decimated football program, no matter what the cost.
When the Marshall University president decides to push on with football, he starts by finding a new coach. He hires Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) because no one else will take the job. Jack seems almost eager to tackle it and he blows into town full of big smiles and optimism. He talks the team’s one surviving assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) into helping him, and together they use their three or four remaining players to rebuild the Marshall football team with creative recruiting.
This isn’t a football movie about winning games, it’s about the private, personal stories of players, parents, and coaches trying to cope with loss. Except when it comes to doing that, McG botches it. We Are Marshall stops being good about the same time the Marshall football team does: when all their players fall out of the sky in a burning fireball of death. The script takes in all the usual football movie clichés, and then adds to them a lot of vague emotional flailing. Player stories are started and abandoned mid-stream, characters drift in and out of the frame with almost reckless abandon. It’s a confused, disjointed mess.
From the moment the whistle blows on Lengyel’s coaching career, the movie becomes completely lost. McCongaughey struts across the screen spouting idiotic catchphrases and grinning his head off as if he’s reliving some childhood dream, which of course he is. Matt is a known college football fanatic, and he’s having one helluva time playing a coach. Too bad he forgot he’s supposed to act. ‘Lost’s’ Matthew Fox tries his best and has most of the movie’s heavy moments, but the cheesy red spray paint in his hair makes it difficult to take any of his weeping serious. ‘Deadwood’s’ Ian McShane shows up as the father of a dead player, and proceeds to have the creepiest relationship ever with his deceased boy’s damaged fiancée. McG’s camera lingers over McShane ominously, as if at any moment he’s going to rape her.
When the team finally gets around to playing football, it no longer matters. The retarded off-screen hissy fits being thrown by the town and the film’s complete inability to let us get to know any of its cast of characters kills any interest anyone might have in watching nameless, faceless players toss around the pigskin. Marshall blows its big emotional load incredibly early with the heavily advertised, crowd chanting sequence you’ve seen in the trailers and from there on it’s as if everything goes completely limp. There’s just no life left in it.