No, nonononono you don’t, you slick-suited Hollywood douchebags and baguettes. Under the terms of my contract here at Pajiba, I’m only given one free weeper-pass per holiday season, and I’ve already used it up on Will Smith’s Pursuit of Happyness. No sir. You will not shame, embarrass, or humiliate me again. I will not give in to your silly attempts to extract my tears. I don’t care how many insipid Motown songs, hollered refrains, or plane crashes you toss at me. And frankly, it hardly seemed like you were trying with We Are Marshall. Matthew McConaughey?! Seriously: He’s no Will Smith. And besides, We! Are! Marshall! is dumb. Pointless. Bad. Poorly executed. Meandering. Clichéd. Sentimental in all the wrong ways. And about as inspiring as a post-Peter Cetera Chicago ballad (take that, Siegel — I’d like to see you shoehorn in a disparaging reference to Jason Scheff).
We Are Marshall is the latest in a series of treacly inspired-by-actual-events sports films (Remember the Titans, Miracle, Glory Road, Invincible, The Greatest Game Ever Played), each worse than the previous, as the big studios attempt to mine every last fucking decent sports-related storyline to come out of the last century, up to and until we are finally forced to sit through an inspirational tale of 2004’s Pacers-Pistons “Malice at the Palace” and its aftermath (and true to the “inspired by” template, the Pistons will be depicted as fire-breathing Nazis, 17 spectators will be mauled to death, and David Stern will execute Ron Artest by guillotine. The epilogue, of course, will be that his bronzed, decapitated head will offer a rallying cry for the Pacers for generations: “Let’s go out and win one for Ron!”) Actually, We Are Marshall hews closer to the actual events and characters than most films of this variety (Invincible, for instance, was a sham), though that goddamn chant is no doubt one of the more obnoxiously dramatic flourishes in the “inspired by” genre.
Marshall covers the tragedy that befell the Marshall University football team in 1970, when — after a lackluster 17-14 loss to East Carolina University — a chartered flight carrying 37 members of the team, eight members of the coaching staff, and another 30 fans and friends inexplicably crashed into a mountain, killing everyone on board. The problems with We Are Marshall, in fact, begin with the plane crash. In McG’s (Charlie’s Angels, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle) misguided effort to sanitize the tragic deaths of 75 people, he pulls too many punches. There’s an opportunity here to wrack the audience with grief, as J.J. Abrams or Paul Greengrass, for instance, would have no doubt managed, dismantling the plane mid-air and in painful slow-motion, in the horrific fashion that the demise of that many people warranted. Instead, McG simply goes to black and flashes ahead to the radio and television broadcasts and, later, to a few of the townsmen (including Paul Griffen [Ian McShane], the father of one of the players) yelling at the wreckage: “Are those our boys?! Are those our boys?!”
Frankly, it’s all bullshit. If you really want to honor the memories of that tragedy, more is necessary than overwrought platitudes and “grief is messy.” Yeah. We know it’s messy, you dumb fuck. Now show us: We need gut-wrenching, hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing, fall-at-the-knees blood-curdling pain. Seventy-five people are dead. Come on now, this ain’t exactly just another sad day at the office. Maybe folks back in 1970 had a lot more composure than this generation of parents and teammates, but I’m guessing that when the owner of the local diner found out that 75 people — including of lot of the town’s biggest boosters — just met their maker, he did a lot more than drop the phone and contemplate their deaths quietly to himself. It’s a minor nitpick, perhaps, but if my son dies in a plane, and all the local fireman can offer by way of identification is a green Marshall University folder, somebody is going to feel my pain, goddamnit. And here it deserves more than a metaphorical shrug of the camera.
Whatever. As it turns out, there are a couple of injured players who didn’t make the trip, as well as the wide receivers’ coach, Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), who gave up his plane seat to another man and decided to take a recruiting trip instead. It’s basically up to them to get the Marshall football program back on its feet
before Final Destination’s Death catches up to them, flinging a running chainsaw into their chest cavities. First things first: After Marshall’s President, Donald Dedmon (David Stathairn) decides he wants to cancel the football program because of the disaster, one of the injured players, Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) rounds up as many frat boys, cheerleaders, and band geeks as he can find. He amasses them outside of the school board meeting and asks them to call out that ignominious refrain, which is enough to sway the minds of the entire school board, who apparently have a soft spot for fist-pumping manufactured hokum. Bless the Lords! Almost the entire team has just perished, but we got a football program in Marshall, goddamnit.
The problem is that there aren’t any players left to form a team, nor a living coach to construct it. Enter Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), the College of Wooster’s football coach, who decides to take over the Marshall post because … well, because he loves his own kids. He also, apparently, loves to rub his hands together, talk out of the side of his mouth, and grate on my every last fucking nerve. Seriously, in McConaughey’s long and storied career of loathsomely charismatic roles, he completely outdoes himself here. He’s Dudley fucking Dooright with a thick, honeyed drawl, and he provokes the kind of anger in me generally reserved for Larry (the fucking) Cable Guy and the color commentary of Joe Theismann.
So: Lengvel is given 31 days to convince the NCAA to allow freshmen players to start (apparently, true freshman weren’t allowed to play in 1971) and then recruit his team, which he manages to do after he convinces Red Dawson to return to the squad. They do so by resorting a few basketball players, a soccer player, and the sort of creative recruiting that accompanies schmaltzy musical montages. Also, Matthew Fox is almost as bad as McConaughey here, displaying his “Party of Five” origins as a coach suffering the guilt of living, emoting with all the fervor of a fire hydrant that’s just been pissed on.
There is also the manufactured plotline, involving a deceased wide receiver’s fiancée and his father, created presumably to introduce another goddamn alumnus of the Mickey Mouse club, Kate Mara. She’s pretty in the plainest possible way — cinematic cardboard with tear ducts. She has an engagement ring that’s burning a hole in her pocket, and all she really wants in life is a chance to leave her diner job behind and move to California. (I think Poison wrote a song about her.) What’s holding her back? Her former prospective father-in-law (McShane), who really needs someone to serve him that down-home pie during his grieving process. Giddyup.
Of course, “The Young Thundering Herd,” as they are called, is no damn good, even with help and advice of arch-rival West Virginia’s coach, Bobby Bowden (Mike Pniewski), whose simple veer-offense Marshall adopts. But sucking is beside the point: They have a team, damn it. A team that would be drubbed in its first game and then fall apart so completely that the school’s president is fired, the coach is vilified, the assistant coach quits, and the town turns viciously upon the very idea of a Marshall football program. All in a matter of six days.
But you know, there’s nothing like a rousing graveside pep talk to turn the tide. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love football — I’m a Southern hetero; it’s genetic. And I also understand the role of sports in the grieving process (see, e.g., “Nine Innings from Ground Zero” a fantastic doc about the post-9/11 Yankees World Series run). But I can’t imagine what’s worse here: 1) Evoking the deaths of 75 people to win a goddamn college football game, or 2) creating a sterile, disrespectful feel-good, Disneyfied Mathew-McConaughey flick heralding, “From the ashes we rose”?
We? I think the filmmakers are being a little presumptuous here.
Maybe I’m being overly critical, or perhaps it’s my own cynicism, but to me, if you want to respect the premature deaths of 75 people, you don’t sugarcoat the tragedy, and you sure as hell don’t soft-pedal the grieving process with a CCR song. You show it, warts and all. And then, perhaps, I’ll weep for you Hollywood bastards.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He is currently halfway through a three-year ‘sentence’ in upstate, NY, where he lives with his wife. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
We Are Marshall / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | December 21, 2006 | Comments ()