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‘We Are Marshall’ drops the ball

Though film has its moments, the script heads off in too many directions. By John Hartl

Sports movies have become so formulaic that “We Are Marshall” stands out just because — for much of its two-hour-plus length — it doesn’t line up the usual locker-room clichés.

The first-time screenwriter, Jamie Linden, dramatizes the true story of a 1970 plane crash that took the lives of most of the members of the Marshall University football team in Huntington, West Virginia. The surviving players, backed by their new head coach, worked together to rebuild the team for the following year.

The scenes before the crash are most effective. As the players flirt, joke around, listen to their ultra-competitive coach (Robert Patrick) and board the plane — not knowing what the audience knows — every exchange between them carries an extra weight. The separations are hardest to take: we know these people, however connected they may be, won’t be connecting again.

Unfortunately, the script then heads off in so many directions that it loses the tense focus of those early scenes. By the time the filmmakers have reached the final stretch (relying heavily on songs by Cat Stevens and Gordon Lightfoot to capture the period and the mood), they can’t help retreating to the comfort of gridiron stereotypes. 

For awhile, Linden does seem to have settled on a theme: survivors’ guilt. The assistant coach, Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), personally recruited each of the players who died, and he’s devastated by the fact that he wasn’t on the plane with them. Equally grief-stricken are a waitress (Kate Mara) mourning her boyfriend,  the boy’s depressed father (Ian McShane) and a surviving player (Anthony Mackie) who won’t give up on the idea of reviving the team.

Fox and Mara have the most moving scenes, emphasizing his rage (as well as his resistance to returning to work) and her sense of helplessness (as well as her need to return to work). As the school’s uncertain president, who is reluctant to put the team back together until he senses how much the community wants it, David Straithairn suggests indecision as only he can.

Matthew McConaughey, cast as the new coach, Jack Lengyel, will strike you as either an inspired icebreaker or a hole in the center of the movie. He plays this outsider as a folksy fraternity boy who pats Strathairn on the rump, thrives on trite pep talks and tells dim jokes that usually have to be explained. The filmmakers only encourage this approach by throwing in a couple of Disney-cute family scenes with Lengyel’s adorable baby son.

Lengyel’s wife is a non-entity, but that’s true of most of the women in the film (the waitress is the only female who doesn’t seem like an accessory). The most intense hugging is left to men in the locker room and on the field.

“We Are Marshall” was directed by McG, who made the disposable “Charlie’s Angels” movies. It’s an odd choice, to say the least. His attention span can seem as limited as that of the script, but he does demonstrate a commanding use of the wide-screen frame. And he allows Fox and Mara to have their moments.