We Are Marshall, a "male weepie" of tragic loss turned to come-from-behind victory, blurs the lines between football and life. The "true story" of Marshall University's attempts to rebuild its football program after a devastating plane crash traces a long and obvious journey from "Winning is everything" to "We cannot be defeated," but I suppose there's a place for this studio picture's brand of popcorn catharsis. One just wishes the powerful story at its heart felt more genuine and less manipulative.
We Are Marshall also marks the bid of Charlie's Angels director McG to be taken seriously (let's start with the name, huh?), and I'm sure we can all agree that dialing down his hyperactive style to competent anonymity is a move in the right direction. McG works an audience hard to earn the inevitable eleventh-hour uplift: with the exception of Matthew McConaughey's comically go-getting replacement coach, the town is a hellish inferno of grief made nearly literal by its central source of income: a steel mill (in this respect, the film recalls the superior October Sky, also a period drama about a community in crisis).
These sports movies always labor to make each team member a definable character, but We Are Marshall doesn't bother, focusing on only one actual player (Anthony Mackie's Nate Ruffin, pivotal in the team's resurgence). McConaughey gives real-life coach Jack Lengyel a George W. Bush chuckle and a likeably shambling manner that makes him a sort of gridiron Columbo: underestimate him at your peril. He's backed by assistant coach "Red" Dawson (Matthew Fox of Lost), who's near-consumed by survivor's guilt; as a composite character, Ian McShane represents those grieving family members who anticipate the continued program will be more painful reminder than inspiration.
Aside from the message that there's always hope of emerging from a great pain, We Are Marshall celebrates love of the game, never giving up, and class despite competition (a rival school shows sympathy and lends aid). Since it's not, in essence, a sports movie, the film largely gets its pathos and warm fuzzies out of interpersonal drama, like Lengyel bringing David Strathairn's non-sporty school president into the team-spirit fold.
As you may well imagine, subtlety is not a priority, whether it's Mackie made to wail, "Why, coach, why?" or the embarrassing swells of Christophe Beck's score, but thanks to co-stars Fox, Straitharn, and McShane, We Are Marshall has enough professional brooding for three awards-season dramas.