Do we really need another football flick? If the film in question is We Are Marshall, then the answer is a wholehearted “yes!” Based on the tragic events of Nov. 14, 1970, when a charter flight carrying the Marshall University football team crashed near Huntington, W. Va., the film is a testament to those who lost their lives and the surviving members of their families. What separates Marshall from a run-of-the-mill sports film is its approach to the material and unexpectedly sound acting and directing.
The bulk of the film is devoted to the efforts of Coach Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) and a reluctant university president, Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn). Persuading the NCAA to allow them to field a squad made up mostly of freshmen is difficult, but the bigger challenge is convincing Marshall fans that restarting the program isn’t an act of disrespect to the deceased. Assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), the only survivor of the previous team, has doubts, as does one of Huntington’s leading citizens, Paul Griffen (Ian McShane), whose grief over the loss of his son in the crash has not dissipated.
The biggest drawback for most sports-themed films is that their outcomes are predictable, and Marshall provides the inevitable uplifting climax. However, what makes this well-traveled journey worth taking is McConaughey’s performance and effectively subtle direction by, of all people, McG. Playing Lengyel as an eccentric whose sanest idea is that he can pull a squad together in less than a year’s time, McConaughey revels in fleshing out Lengyel’s physical quirks and over-the-top personality. You can tell the actor is having a good time, and he wisely provides a foundation of sincerity for his performance, convincing us that, despite his oddball behavior, Lengyel’s intentions are true.
Having action filmmaking chops to spare (Charlie’s Angels), McG creates some of the most memorable and moving football sequences ever presented on the screen. The fact that he’s able to guide his fine cast through the emotional nuances of the movie’s more poignant moments makes the film work, infusing in this worn model a degree of passion that’s unexpected and