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WE ARE MARSHALL

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, Ian McShane, Anthony Mackie, Kate Mara, January Jones, Brian Geraghty, David Strathairn
Director: McG
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 131 Minutes
Release Date: September 18, 2007

“This is not about the game. This is about what happened to this town.”

Film ****

When a new inspiring sports drama comes along, people seem to know what to expect. A formula is to be expected, but We Are Marshall defies genre expectations and presents a heartfelt and truly moving movie experience. The sports movie elements are there, but at the heart of the movie something much more special.

Of course it helps that the story depicted is a true one, that of the greatest tragedy in college sports history. In November of 1970, a chartered playing carrying the Marshall University football team crashed near it’s West Virginia destination following an away game against East Carolina. It was a devastating blow, as the entire football team, six members of the coaching staff, the athletic director and several booster club members were killed. It was one of the few times that an accident actually destroyed an entire organization.

In it’s retelling of this heartbreaking and uplifting story, We Are Marshall provides remarkable storytelling. The most riveting aspects come right in the aftermath of the tragedy, where it is questioned if rebuilding the football department is a good idea, or is it simply too soon? University President Donald Dedmond (David Strathairn) decides to put the program on temporary suspension, but the students rally together in a touching scene to convince him otherwise even though Dedmond himself doesn’t even know where to begin.

In a search for a new football coach, Marshall isn’t so lucky in hunting down a potential replacement. But one soon shows interests in the job, College of Wooster coach Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey). With no other candidate in sight, Lengyel is soon accepted as the coaching replacement. Now that they have a coach, Marshall’s next step is to recruit a coaching staff as well as 55 more players for a full football team, even if they’re first timers.

For the assistant coach position, Lengyel is able to lure back Red Dawson (Matthew Fox). Dawson is the only surviving member of the Marshall coaching staff, as he volunteered to drive the night of the plane coach so that a colleague could make his granddaughter’s piano recital. Only promising that he’ll serve for one season, Dawson accepts the job.

What makes We Are Marshall stand out from the basic sports movie formula is that the heart of the story isn’t that of an underdog team’s chances of winning a big game at the end of the movie. This is a story about the struggle to simply rebuild a team, as well as an athletic organization to help honor the memories of the lives lost in the tragedy. It also focuses on the healing process the college and the town of Marshall goes through, which is important to depict. We do get an inspirational speech from the coach near the end of the movie, but again it has a much deeper meaning and doesn’t come across as cheesy.

The film also scores remarkably in the acting department. Matthew McConaughey delivers perhaps his best performance to date as Jack Lengyel. It’s a role you can really see the actor disappear into right from his first scene. Even more impressive is that of Matthew Fox, from the hit TV series Lost. I responded a great deal to his portrayal of the guilt-stricken Red Dawson. That character, as well as Fox’s performance, represents the emotional heart of the movie. There is also fantastic supporting work from David Strathairn, Ian McShane, and most especially Anthony Mackie as a surviving team member who feels the most responsible for keeping the memory of the team alive.

But the most surprising element is that the director of the film is McG, the former music video director best known for making the brainless, hyperkinetic Charlie’s Angels movies. Here, McG has proven that he can make strong serious film without flashy cuts and over the top camera angles. He has done the material absolute justice, and from what I can tell the project was a passionate one for him.

We Are Marshall is one of 2006’s best films, as well as one of the best sports movies I’ve ever seen. Along with Friday Night Lights, it demonstrates that sports movies aren’t always driven by clichés and formulas. It’s an emotional and uplifting film experience, and one you can’t afford to miss.

Video ***

For the most part, this anamorphic presentation from Warner is stellar and magnificent-looking. The image is clean and crisp with spectacular colors to boot. The only setback in the presentation is the opening ten minutes, which seem to be a bit fuzzy and grainy. But what follows that portion of the movie appears in full excellence.

Audio ****

This hard-hitting sports drama is even more hard-hitting in the furious 5.1 mix supplied here. There’s plenty of football action to be had in the presentation, as well as rousing music playback and surround sound qualities (i.e. crowd noise) to give the sound system a lot to work with. Phenomenal sounding disc all the way!

Features **

Though a bit light on features, the disc does include a fantastic documentary titled “Legendary Coaches”, which chronicles the lives of the real Jack Lengyel as well as other renowned coaches of various sports. Also featured is a commercial for Marshall University and a Theatrical Trailer.

Summary:

We Are Marshall is MORE than a sports movie; it’s a riveting and moving story of a team that rose from the ashes of a devastating tragedy. The story, acting, and directing all come together to make one of the more moving film experiences in recent memory.

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