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The new film, We Are Marshall, is the latest in a long line of films which follow a set formula. These are the underdog sports movies. In these films, an athlete or more often a whole team, overcomes terrible adversity to (usually) win the championship. These stories can involve any sport. but football and basketball seem to be preferred. If these films are well done, then by the time you reach the climax, they will have you sobbing. My favorite movies of this genre are Rudy, the story of an undersized but big-hearted student (Sean Astin) and would-be football player at Notre Dame, and Hoosiers, the story of a washed-up coach (Gene Hackman) who takes the basketball team from a small Indiana town to the state championship. In recent years, this type of film has appeared at an alarming rate, including Remember the Titans, Glory Road, Miracle, The Rookie, and Friday Night Lights. Apparently, there is an inexhaustible supply of these heartwarming stories.
The newest, underdog, sports tearjerker, We Are Marshall, tells the true story of the Marshall University football team in 1971. The previous year a plane crash killed almost all of the players and coaches on the team. The university president (David Strathairn) has to decide whether to cancel the football program since only one assistant coach (Matthew Fox) and three players (Anthony Mackie et al.) are left alive. The townspeople, including the father (Ian McShane) and fiancee (Kate Mara) of one of the dead players, are still reeling. But the students at Marshall make it clear that they want football, so Strathairn tries to find a new head coach. He has almost exhausted his search when he hears from a coach (Matthew McConaughey) who is interested in the job. McConaughey and Fox, supported by their long-suffering wives (January Jones & Kimberly Williams), set out to find some players and build a team.
We Are Marshall isn't bad. It hits all the right notes but it doesn't really make us care enough about these people to cry about them. In fact, the only time I got a bit choked up was near the beginning of the movie when the University Board of Regents is meeting to decide the fate of the football team and hundreds of students gather, chanting, you guessed it, We Are Marshall. The cast is OK. Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck) is one of the greatest, if under appreciated, actors. And he shows his talent here, turning a one-dimensional character in the screenplay into one with close to three dimensions. And this is a good role for McConaughey. He plays a good old boy who talks out of the side of his mouth and we like him. But it just doesn't run very deep. There's no comparison between McConaughey in We are Marshall and Gene Hackman's haunted coach in Hoosiers. Matthew Fox as the assistant coach, plays basically the same bitter character that he plays in Lost.
We Are Marshall is a change of speed for the director, McG, who is best known for the Charlie's Angels movies. Those movies are not known for their deep character development. We Are Marshall concentrates mostly on the two coaches and one star player who survived the crash. But even then, we don't get much beyond survivor guilt. Similarly, the one major subplot with McShane and Mara, grieving apart over the same person, isn't very well developed. You just have to watch McShane in Deadwood to see what he can do with a real character. But all that aside, We Are Marshall almost works because this true story of a small town losing so many people at once is very powerful. So rent it some Saturday night.