Factually more accurate than Glory Road but just as determined to pull heartstrings with its real-life tale of athletic triumph over adversity, We Are Marshall tackles arguably the worst tragedy in American sports history: the 1970 plane crash in West Virginia that killed every member of the Marshall University football team, most of its coaches, and a handful of boosters. “This is a true story” reads the opening title card to director McG’s fictionalization of the school and town’s efforts to overcome the catastrophe by rebuilding their football program, quite a boast considering that it gets the basic particulars right but then embellishes them with all sorts of maudlin melodramatic moments ripped straight from the Hollywood male-weepie playbook. After barely paying attention to the doomed players and staff, whose fateful accident is depicted via a United 93-style cut to silent darkness at the moment of lethal impact, McG spends a good chunk of time fetishizing the grief of the deceased’s loved ones—which includes a school board member and factory worker (Ian McShane) whose son was a star running back, his boy’s fiancé (Kate Mara), a player (Brian Geraghty) who fortuitously overslept and thus missed the flight, and the young son of the squad’s play-by-play radio announcer—with somber, golden-hued compositions.
Things turn uplifting when the university’s president (David Strathairn), convinced by Anthony Mackie’s junior varsity player and a crowd outside his window chanting the school motto “We Are…Marshall!,” decides to create a new team, and hires a country bumpkin named Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) with no ties to Marshall to be its head coach. Upon Lengyel’s arrival and successful hiring of the original team’s survivor’s guilt-wracked assistant Red (Matthew Fox), McG goes buck-wild with player-recruitment mini-montages set to predictable period tunes. All the while, emotional obstacles are overcome and sports’ winning-is-everything mentality takes a back seat to the idea that simply playing—successfully or not—is both a tribute to the dead and a means of healing through the restoration of normalcy. Such moving messages are given a glimmer of poignancy by McConaughey’s performance, which is rampant with shtick—his body hunched over, earnest homilies rapidly emanating out of the corner of his mouth—but also, on at least one occasion, exhibits a genuine sense of confusion and helplessness that’s at odds with the role’s regulation-size heroism. Any sincerity, however, is ultimately overwhelmed by the thick cheese that coats virtually every inch of this inspirational saga. “Grief is messy,” says McShane’s anguished dad. We Are Marshall’s disingenuously tidy portrait of it, alas, is not.