December 21, 2006

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We Are Marshall (PG)
Wide neck ties and even wider lapels mingle with late 1960s/early 1970s music to create a soothing little sports flick in We Are Marshall, a movie that finally wins me over to the attractiveness of Matthew McConaughey.

I mean, I kinda got it before. He’s tall, he’s got that accent that’s just a bit dirty. His hair is just a bit too long for somebody doing 9-to-5 work. And he’s got those blue eyes. I think it was the eyes and the way he works them for all their Paul-Newman-esque charm that made him particularly handsome in this movie. Or maybe it’s just that I had a lot of time during the many emotional speeches to ruminate on these things.

Of course, you’ve got to expect that a movie that begins with the death of 70-some people is going to get pretty emotional. Not long after the 1970 football team of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, loses an away game in Kentucky, the players, the coaches, the radio announcer and several team boosters pile onto a plane to head home. Near the end of the flight, the plane crashes, killing everybody aboard. The deaths devastate the town but especially those connected to the dead, including the young son of the radio man and Paul Griffen (Ian McShane), father of a boy who had just gotten engaged to Annie (Kate Mara). A cheerleader at the time of the crash, Annie sticks around in town, taking a job as a waitress, in order to keep Paul and the memory of his son company.

The crash, which happens in November of 1970, naturally puts an end to that year’s football season but the university’s president Donald Dedmon (David Straithairn) fears the crash might mean the end of the program for good. Only a few freshmen, four upperclass players and assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) remain. One of those players, Nate Ruffian (Anthony Mackie), is determined to keep the team going and convinces the school’s board of trustees not to suspend play for a year. Getting the team back on the field, however, proves harder than simply getting students to turn out and chant “we are … Marshall” (the rah-rah slogan of the football team) as Ruffian does for the trustees meeting. First of all, there’s the head coach job, which no one, not Red, not Marshall alumni, no one wants. When Jack Lengyl (McConaughey) calls Dedmon to ask for the job, he’s not just the only candidate but probably the team’s only chance. Why does he want it? Some sappy reason that had me focusing less on his words and more on his eyes (blue mostly but green when he’s in Marshall’s green and white shirts — so dreamy).

But the coach is only part of the rebuilding effort. Jack has only a few months to recruit new players, most of whom are freshmen. Their age would normally disqualify them from play, requiring Donald Dedmon to personally have to ask for an exception from the N.C.A.A. And, assuming they are allowed to see the field, what match will freshmen be against the juniors and seniors at other colleges?

We Are Marshall throws every conceivable sports cliché into its plot casserole. There’s the recruiting montage, the team learning the basics of football (most of the players are not traditional high school football stars), the small victories, the big defeats, the “maybe we were wrong”s and the “time to move forward”s. We also have the rebuilding-after-tragedy clichés — the new people not understanding the legacy of the old, the old people filled with guilt and the feeling that failure will dishonor the dead. It’s fairly boilerplate stuff that doesn’t even get the benefit of particularly innovative camera work during the game scenes.

What makes the film somewhat enjoyable are the performances — Straithairn’s nerdy president, McConaughey’s energetic coach, Mackie’s driven team captain and McShane’s sad dad, a role that would seem pointless to the movie had anybody else played it. McShane, however, has a face so filled with character and quiet, tortured emotion that he barely needs dialogue. The actors stretch the material far beyond its limits, a fact particularly noticeable in the very average performance turned in by Fox. Pushed out of the spotlight on Lost by far more interesting characters, he’s just as lightweight here.

That I liked the movie more I should is not just a credit to the actors but also whoever put together the Crosby, Stills and Nash, Cat Stevens and other classic rocker-filled soundtrack. Forget the mediocre dialogue, the real communication is through the somehow just-right collection of songs.

Good music and a cute boy? We Are Marshall isn’t a sports movie; it’s a date. C+

Rated PG for emotional thematic material, a crash scene and mild language. Directed by McG and written by Jamie Linden and Cory Helms, We Are Marshall is a little over two hours long and is distributed by Warner Brothers. It opens in wide release on Friday, Dec. 22