Monday, November 26, 2007
Recently Viewed: We Are Marshall
The meeting takes place in a cramped room, the tight framing emphasizing the flood of bodies in the seats, the sense of claustrophobia created by a bureaucratic mindset. The man at the podium-- the school's well-intended but somewhat too-formal president-- is about to announce that football will be suspended for a year. Suddenly, a player bursts into the room. The usual ripple of foot-squeaking, paper-rumbling and mumble-tutting carries across the room, but the player doesn't care-- he's passionate. He has something to say. Football should go on. When the president explains that the decision has been made, and for the good of the campus community, the player says there's another group that wants to be heard, and points to the window. Outside, an large crowd of students-- even larger than the crowd in the room, its size doubled by the spacing out of the extras, and the way the camera moves across them, instead of staying static-- has gathered outside the administration building, and begins to chant. "We are-- Marshall! We are-- Mar-SHALL!," their cries punctuated by pumped fists, and accompanied by Christophe Beck's swelling score.
It's a scene familiar to any devotee of sports movies-- the unthinking bosses, the scrappy players, the loyal fans (an easy audience surrogate, positioned outside the room, with the team-- "You're one of them!," the filmmakers lie to us), the slightly treacly uplift. It's the sort of scene we expect from We Are Marshall, which attempts to apply this formula to the tragic story of the 1970 Marshall football team, whose players and coaches nearly all died in a shocking plane crash towards the end of that season.
What's interesting is what follows, as the music from the previous scene carries over to a montage of those folks-- surviving coaches, family members, friends-- affected by the plane crash. Their faces are pensive, angry, confused-- they seem as angry or disappointed by the 'good news' of the continuing season as the crowd outside the building were thrilled by it. This is different, unexpected-- it doesn't fit the formula, and brings a dose of sadness and humanity to the proceedings.
That slightly unstable mixture of rah rah and pathos distinguishes We Are Marshall, lifting it above the usual run-of-the-mill sports film (a genre I'll admit I generally enjoy) and making it an honorable tribute to the men and women who went through that horrible year in Huntington. The movie was a bit of a financial disappointment when it was released last year, despite Matthew McConaughey's appearances on ESPN for what seemed like weeks in late December. It had the bad luck to follow Invincible, another football film-- well-acted and enjoyably heart-tugging-- that ruled the box office earlier that fall, and it also came out at the tail end of the college and NFL seasons (when its target audience was either caught up in the playoff/bowl season, or sick of the sport) and in the midst of the Oscar derby, when attention was mostly paid to The Departed, The Queen and other presumptive nominees. Its sad subject matter probably also scared people away, and McConaughey's on-screen pairing with Terry Bradshaw earlier that year (the regrettable Failure to Launch), might have convinced the hardcore pigskinner that the actor had no chemistry with anything football-related.
I wonder, though, if it didn't have something to do with that formula-tweaking. Marshall doesn't deliver cliches, it spins them, and that difference might have made its audience a little nervous. Take McConaughey, for instance-- yes, he's the great football coach with the funny one-liners and inspirirational speeches, but he's also David Wooderson, all grown up. It's the first time I've seen McConaughey unleash that slightly oily/creepy side of himself in a big-budget film (not the scoundrel or scamp, but the self-deluded, used car salesman guy), and it's immensely pleasurable, and very effective for the role. We get the sense that his character, Jack Lengyel, is a good guy, but slightly out of his element, and perhaps a bit on the make-- Marshall is a good career opportunity for him.
Think of the pair that flanks Lengyel-- haunted, survivor assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) and bemused college president Dedmon (David Straithairn). It's their story as much as his, and yet they are sports movie oddities-- the quiet, defeated-before-he-starts teacher (Fox is very effective, all quiet and eyes-to-the-ground) and geeky academic (Straithairn, as always, is a treasure). In other movies, the college president, especially, would be a figure of either villainy or comic relief; here, he's the movie's true hero, and Straithairn's final, quiet moment in the stands is Marshall's version of the last-minute touchdown (ok, there's one of those, too), the most truly moving moment in the whole film.
Or think of the plane crash itself. We have to, because the film doesn't show it to us. Instead, there's a scene on the plane of the team flying home, laughing and joking with each other, one final long shot of the interior-- then a sudden cut to blackness. It stays on the blackness for what feels like a full minute, with no image or sound. It's a daring choice, but an effective one, a moving and respectful way to signify the sudden, terrible explosion of chance, chaos and terror. It makes the slow dissemination of the news of crash to the town all the more suspenful and horrific, too. There's no catharsis here, but also no sense of rubber-neck exploitation-- just a very sad look at how lives are wrenched by tragedy.
The film shot in part on location in Huntington, WV, and does a good job of capturing the brown landscapes, moody skies, and deluded hopes of a small town wrapped up in its team (it's notable that the superb TV show Friday Night Lights, which also debuted in fall 2006, does the same thing-- and has also struggled to find an audience. Do we only like football when it features Adam Sandler?). Many of the smaller roles in the film are also well-cast, especially Ian McShane's booster, who lost a son in the plane and remains stoically, bravely unsympathetic until his final scene. That all of this is orchestrated by McG, auteur behind the Charlie's Angels films, is a little surprising, but perhaps he was touched by something in the story that forced him to chill out the usual campy pyrotechnics and focus on the quotidian.
In the end, that's the film's triumph. A wry voiceover plays over the penultimate images of the film: even as we see players jumping up and down in ecstasy, the film's narrator informs us that the team only won two more games that year, and Lengyel finished his Marshall career with a losing record. In fact, Marshall would not have much on-the-field success until the 1980s, long after this team's players graduated. Marshall had the good grace to induct Lengyel into its Hall of Fame, anyway, perhaps realizing his importance-- and that team's--went beyond wins and losses (or sports movie cliches). Instead, it's about the small moments that surround the big, the recognitions of the real that pop out from behind the cliches. It's a celebration of the everyday, the split consciousness in that photo above: we're both the wild celebration in the middle, and the wary-eyed kid on the left edge, looking out for trouble.