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Sticking to the Playbook: We Are Marshall

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Sticking to the Playbook: <em>We Are Marshall</em>

The football movie is such a tight-assed genre that it makes the western and the gangster picture seem flexible in comparison. Nearly every example contains some or all of the following elements: An underqualified but scrappy team (or previously selfish hero) trains hard and learns life lessons, then either triumphs or walks away beaten but proud. Prayers are offered, anthems sung. Hardass and/or eccentric yet caring coaches rally demoralized players with vernacular St. Crispians’ day speeches. Once-disapproving moms turn out to watch the gladiators and end up baying for blood. Leather-necked dads squeeze out a tear when they think no one’s looking (and mom pretends not to see). Padded bodies crash into each other while the soundtrack plays popular music of the day. An important character gets injured, then (1) sucks it up and gets back on the field, (2) becomes a de facto mascot, cheering from the sidelines, or (3) dies tragically, inspiring his teammates to victory in his name. The values of faith and community are affirmed and guys spray beer on each other. Vary these elements even a tiny bit—by, say, shifting the placement of the big game, or using the story to praise racial harmony (Remember the Titans), tweak high school nostalgia (The Best of Times) or deconstruct America’s larger institutions (Any Given Sunday)—and the result will seem radical, even though the rest of the movie is strictly pro forma.

At least that’s what the makers of We Are Marshall seem to have been banking on—that and the pall of real-life tragedy, which hangs over both the movie and its audience. The gist: in 1970, a chartered flight bearing Marshall University’s football team, coaching staff and various students, alums and boosters crashed on the way home from an away game with East Carolina University, killing everyone on board and wiping out Marshall’s entire program. The movie, directed by one-named Charlie’s Angels auteur McG, starts with the away game and the crash, then follows the team and the surrounding community as it struggles to heal itself through football, overriding natural objections that it’s too soon to be suiting up, and then limping through the next season courtesy of the student body’s grit and heart, a rules exemption from the NCAA allowing freshman to suit up, and the eccentric energy of new coach Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), who apparently was the 563rd choice of university president Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn), but turned out to be the right guy for the job. The movie ends on a note of triumph, but it’s a self-effacing, Rocky 1 triumph; since the team’s mere presence on the field constitutes a victory, everything else is gravy.

I gather from news stories that We Are Marshall sticks reasonably close to fact, compressing events and combining characters and embellishing a bit to make a more propulsive and commercial film without deforming the essence of what really happened. Still, fidelity to truth is no guarantee of excellence if history is conveyed via the usual football movie elements, and Marshall has more than its share—Norman Rockwell nostalgia for bygone times; Life magazine color scheme, K-Tel soundtrack; the standard building-a-team plot points, conveyed via characters who are permitted one or two distinguishing traits and no rough edges. The team quarterback’s fiancee, a cheerleader turned coffee shop waitress (Kate Mara), is defined by her morose demeanor and her refusal to take off her ring; player Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie of She Hate Me) and assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox of Lost) are defined solely by their guilt over not having been on that flight. It’s understandable that We Are Marshall would organize itself around trauma—the movie’s about a community’s response to death, so how could it be otherwise?—but I still found myself reacting to many of the scenes with a disrepectfully raised eyebrow. The characters seem to have been honed to the point where they can slip right into preordained narrative slots, and their ephiphanies come right on schedule. You know the fiancee’s story will culminate in deciding what to do about that ring. Ian McShane—who plays Mara’s should-have-been father-in-law, a local steel tycoon and team booster—is likewise defined only by his suffering, and Strathairn’s president is the sum total of his tremulous sensitivity as he flails about trying to do the right thing (first by cancelling the post-crash season, then by trying to rescue it).

Is this really the best way to honor the crash victims’ memories and the town’s collective spirit—by making nearly every character into a moist-eyed sports film archetype, wandering around inside shimmering CinemaScope compositions illuminated by the holy, healing light of football, apple pie and Chevrolet? I’m all for honoring one’s hometown and home team, but Jesus, come on—between Shane Hurbut’s sugar-glazed photography and Christophe Beck’s Stations-of-the-Cross score (which pumps inspirational helium into every moment, no matter how outwardly incidental), Marshall plays like a puffed-up feature length cousin of the opening section of Born on the Fourth of July, minus the embittered radical follow-through. Where Oliver Stone indulged the cliched iconography of mid-century, middlebrow nostalgia in order to shatter it along with protagonist Ron Kovic’s body, McG just dusts off the same iconography and presents it as-is, which tells the viewer, in effect: “Yes, life really is this simple, and people really are this warm and decent, and small-town America really is this terrific. And football? Don’t get me started.” Certain corny incidents might very well be true, but the Hollywood presentation makes you doubtful. On the night when Dedmon obtained the NCAA waiver, did the pivotal conversation really take place outdoors during a bibilical thunderstorm? The big trailer moment—thousands of students and staffers instantly gathering below Dedmon’s office and chanting “We are Marshall!” to stop the board of governors from killing the program—seems absurd. I don’t believe it happened, and if it did happen, I bet it didn’t happen in quite that way.

The sheer niceness of the college and the town and everyone in it should send the Bullshit-O-Meter into the red zone. Were there no jerks or knaves or bums anywhere in Marshall? Surely so—and if the filmmakers were worried they’d get sued for including them, they could have changed their names. Were there no otherwise good citizens who unthinkingly exploited the town’s grief or used it as an excuse to withdraw or act out? There must have been. Is this truly the best of all possible worlds? McG seems to think so; I suspect that if he directed Candide, it’d be a drama—and deadly earnest.) If I’d never seen the book Friday Night Lights, or watched the pretty good movie or the superb NBC series, I might have been more inclined to accept We Are Marshall’s glossy but flat commemoration of misery, pluck and heart. The various incarnations of Lights honor the finer human qualities drawn out by nonprofessional athletics, and convey the infinite complexity of individuals, families, teams and towns and the intermingling of idealism and reality, decency and opportunism that defines sports at every level. In contrast, Marshall is so focused on its pain-by-numbers narrative that it rarely pauses to to delineate the town, the school or the individual team members, or to depict the physical/mathematical dynamics of football in a kinetic, visually comprehensible way. (The latter is something the otherwise pre-fab Remember the Titans did quite well, actually. It was one of the only football films in memory where the behind-the-scenes drama literally played out on the field, in shots that were held longer than the football movie norm; watching the coaches watch the players, you could tell which of their gambits was working.) Nor can Marshall be bothered to explore the grief process in anything but the most superficial, plot-point-driven way. The prologue with the away game and the subsequent crash is dread-inducing and powerful, and not as exploitive as you expect because it cuts away the instant the team feels a tremor—but it’s still counterproductive, since its placement requires us to mourn people we just met. (Marshall would have been very different movie—and surely a less pushy one—if it had started with Lengyel hearing about the crash, then let him be our guide into the post-tragedy world, unveiling the town and the survivors through his eyes.) The movie’s square as can be, and it’s a cheerleader for Oprah’s belief in the magical healing power of closure, which translates as, “Decide to be over it, and you’re over it.” If not for McConaughey’s surprisingly rich performance—which combines Dennis Hopper’s demented grin, Peter Falk-as-Columbo’s hunched posture and surreal rhetorical questions, and the affable goofiness of his Dazed and Confused character, Wooderson—you’d be hard pressed to name a character who resembles an actual human being. And that’s just bizarre. It’s as if McG and his collaborators decided to drain the lifeblood from the characters, the period and the whole storyline on purpose—as if letting a wee bit of raggedy, spontaneous life creep into the film would disrespect the dead. We Are Marshall will bring a tear to your eye, but so will cutting an onion.

Matt Zoller Seitz is editor-in-chief and publisher of The House Next Door, a contributor to the The New York Times film section, and a former columnist for New York Press and The Star-Ledger.