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Friday, December 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:27 PM


Movie Review

"We Are Marshall": Good ol' boy rallies a community to heal

Special to The Seattle Times

There's probably an unending supply of inspirational sports stories for Hollywood to exploit, with football being the standby game of choice. But few are likely to strive harder for the double emotional whammy of tears and cheers than "We Are Marshall."

A title card declares, "This is a true story." It's a dubious claim for a movie that so ham-handedly manipulates the audience by telegraphing characters and events just so. That said, the real-life tragedy of the plane crash that killed nearly the entire football team of West Virginia's Marshall University in 1970 is pretty dramatic in itself.

On the way back from a road trip, the team plane went down, killing all 75 on board, including the coaching staff, athletic director and several prominent community members. Everyone in the town of Huntington had a family member or knew someone who died. Picking up the pieces seemed impossible, especially for the four team members who had remained home, a lone assistant coach who stayed off the plane by chance and Marshall's already overburdened president.

Movie review 2.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"We Are Marshall," with Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, Ian McShane, Anthony Mackie, Kate Mara, David Strathairn. Directed by McG, from a screenplay by Jamie Linden. 124 minutes. Rated PG for emotional thematic material, a crash scene and mild language. Several theaters.

The event is truly wrenching, and the pall it casts over the rest of the movie is not forgotten.

At first, Marshall's president, Dedmon (David Strathairn in a fine, affecting performance), and the board of trustees decide it's best to suspend the football program. But the student body feels differently. They express themselves in a moment of calculated melodrama outside the trustees' chambers, repeatedly chanting the school's call-and-response mantra, "We are ... Marshall!"

Won over by the reaction, Dedmon tries and fails to recruit a new staff before getting a call from Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), head coach of a smaller-time college volunteering for the job. As Lengyel, an aw-shucks McConaughey squeezes out homilies and folksy good humor from the side of his mouth without being too maudlin. Will McConaughey ever take a job not meant to paint him as an earnest cornball hunk with bad hair?

His first task is to get the guilt-ridden former assistant coach back on board. He's played by Matthew Fox from "Lost," who's forced to squeeze out solemnity without the depth of close-up cinema savvy that McConaughey has down pat. A series of montage and anecdotal vignettes follows as they recruit a whole new team, learn lessons from the catastrophe, lose and then win, with plenty of sentimentality sprinkled over the whole thing.

Ian McShane shows up as a townie bigwig and school trustee who lost a son in the crash and can't brush the big chip off his shoulder. Along with Strathairn, he's a thoughtful presence, even though it's hard to get past the deliciously evil personae he earned in HBO's "Deadwood."

The director, McG, gave us the "Charlie's Angels" movies but maintains an uninteresting, flat visual style here. He seems to be letting reverence get in the way, along with everything else, in this teary, cheery but mostly unremarkable movie.

Ted Fry:

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