McConaughey, McG draw fouls in "Marshall" mishap

McConaughey, McG draw fouls in "Marshall" mishap

( - What should have been an inspirational story about fortitude and courage in the face of mind-numbing tragedy becomes a compendium of sports cliches in "We Are Marshall."

Although based on a true story, the studio development process has produced a film in which real-life characters feel thinly motivated and insubstantial and "composite" characters -- meaning fictional ones -- are nothing more than ill-conceived dramatic devices. Young men and sports fans represent the film's major audience, which is a shame because the story, properly told, should not be a sports movie at all. Yet line by line, scene by scene, the emphasis falls on the wrong things.

On Saturday evening, November 14, 1970, a charter jet carrying Marshall University's football team, its coaches, staff and boosters, returning from a game in North Carolina, crashed in the Appalachian Mountains minutes before its schedule landing in Huntington, W.Va. In a moment, an entire football program and the heart and soul of the small town vanished. No one survived.

The next year, a new football team took the field lead by head coach Jack Lengyel, an outsider hired by university president Dr. Donald Dedmon to rebuild the program. He used a mix of junior varsity and injured players who didn't make the North Carolina trip, walk-ons, basketball players and true freshmen, who in those days were only able to play because of an NCAA waiver. This is the story that screenwriter Jamie Linden (from a story by Cory Helms and Linden) and director McG (the "Charlie's Angels" films) fumble away with blatant sentimentality, poorly sketched characters and forced dialogue.

The first thing that puts you off is Matthew McConaughey's odd take on playing coach Lengyel. Outfitted in some of the worst examples of that era's clothing styles and sideburns that threaten to never quit, McConaughey ambles into the movie as if it were an off-kilter comedy. His reasons for eagerly pursuing for the job -- in reality he was the university's third choice -- are never explored. Instead, the movie accents his breezy self-confidence and quirky manners in his approach to people still in shock over the tragedy. This makes the coach come off as an opportunist or at least someone insensitive to the situation.

His assistant coach, Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), who missed the flight for a recruitment visit, is a real character with a real problem about stepping back onto the gridiron. The same goes for Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), an injured linebacker who lost all his teammates but fights to continue the program. He is easily the movie's most vividly drawn character.

But the other characters dreamed up by the filmmakers -- Paul Griffen (Ian McShane), a father who lost his son in the crash; Annie (Kate Mara), a cheerleader engaged to his son; and Tom Bogdan (Brian Geraghty), wallowing in guilt that he missed the flight by oversleeping -- feel fraudulent from the get-go. Indeed, the cheerleader is completely extraneous.

Where the focus should be on how people find a way to go on with life, this film dwells excessively on Paul's bitterness over the university's failure to suspend the football program. While some town folks did feel that way, this was not the major issue the film would have you believe. Most people wanted a football team. Even President Nixon sent an encouraging telegram.

Instead of showing how the community sought to heal itself by re-investing emotionally in its team, the movie returns time and again to the football field to demonstrate how the new coach tinkers with the offense and gives pep talks. In other words, it turns into a movie about football.

Technical credits are adequate, but the football action falls short of the standards established by such films as "Any Given Sunday" and "Friday Night Lights." Runs, tackles and fumbles look staged. The editing further confuses things during plays with annoying cut-aways to shots of fans in the stands or coaches screaming on the sidelines. This is a movie destined to look at the wrong things.

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