For a football movie, there sure as hell isn't a lot of pigskin in We Are Marshall. A would-be inspirational drama about the redemptive power of lacing up and getting back out on the field, the movie is jam-packed with every cliché in the inspirational sports drama book: There's the "He's Got Heart" underdog, the loose-cannon coach, the crusty anti-athletic dean, the virginal cheerleader girlfriend and the mean football booster dad, not to mention enough hand-wringing and speechifying to fill a dozen Rudys. But somewhere along the way, someone most likely director McG forgot to shoot any decent, bone-crunching action.
There may be a couple of perfunctory games at the beginning and end, but what the previews don't tell you is that Marshall is really all about grieving. Based on a real-life tragedy at West Virginia's Marshall University in 1970, it opens with the plane crash that killed nearly every member of the school's football team. Wracked with survivor's guilt, the scrappy senior player Nate (Anthony Mackie) and the square-jawed assistant coach Red (Matthew Fox) are united by a mostly unqualified, partly insane coaching candidate, Jack Leyngel (Matthew McConaughey). The long, tedious slog to getting a new team out on the field thus begins, aided by a zillion period-music montages and almost as many inconsequential subplots in which the "need for football" in a time of crisis is hotly debated. After a while, it becomes clear that these guys don't need football; they need Dr. Phil.
That the movie is overstuffed isn't necessarily a problem: A real director the late, great Robert Altman comes to mind probably could've juggled all of these competing characters and moods. But McG has just graduated from playing with Barbie dolls in the Charlie's Angels series, and he seems determined with Marshall to prove that he can sit at the grown-ups' table and make a "serious" film. This means that, early and often, we get one big, dramatic moment after another, each one of them underscored with swelling strings, played-to-the-hilt performances and angelic close-ups. The movie is constantly trying to sell you on an idea or theme; it's like watching the longest, most schizophrenic trailer ever made.
This is one of those films in which the good moments actually cheapen the rest of the film. Mackie is an incredibly talented young actor, but most of his scenes seem like they were cut short in favor of Fox's dull grief and McConaughey's holy-fool routine. Hunching his back, squinting his right eye and speaking as though he's chewing on his tongue, McConaughey looks more like Popeye than any sort of gridiron savior. When the scrappy upstarts finally reach the field, McG has a couple of cool tricks up his sleeve the slo-mo shots scored to marching-band drums are particularly inventive but it's too little, too late. If it's thrilling action and touching human drama you're looking for, NBC's criminally low-rated series Friday Night Lights delivers the goods week after week. Even with a giant budget and more than two hours of screen time, We Are Marshall can't muster either.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].