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When previews loop on television touting the release of "We Are Marshall", the inspirational football drama starring Matthew McConaughey, we can't help but feel that we've seen this film countless times before. In many respects, we have. Like all great sports stories, the film's focus is on overcoming overwhelming obstacles and rediscovering the true spirit that transcends the game. We know going in that the team will suffer their fair share of stumbles along the way to victory. We expect a rousing finale that will lift us from our seats. We can reasonably predict from the opening frames that this small town, whose entire sense of community seems defined by football, will suffer a series of devastating setbacks, find the strength to summon their remaining will and come together one last time to ensure triumph.

And, yet, this film is different because Marshall is different.

Marshall University is one of those small-town colleges that thrive on their football program. Nestled within the close-knit mining community of Huntington, West Virginia, MU harbors one of the most tragic events in the history of sports. In November of 1970, while returning home from an away game, 37 players, all but one member of the coaching staff and several traveling fans were tragically killed in a fiery plane crash. The traumatic event branded a deep scar in the hearts of the four remaining players, the sole surviving assistant coach and the community at large. In an instant, the unassuming people of Huntington were forever transformed.

The tactful recreation of these tragic events only constitute the opening ten minutes of "We Are Marshall", but the resulting grief is palpable throughout. The remainder of the film recounts the struggle to rebuild the team in the face of strong dissention. Is it a noble attempt to honor the memory of the fallen teammates and reinvigorate the town's waning spirit? Or is it a misguided exercise in bad taste that will only succeed in pouring salt on fresh wounds?

After every qualified alumnus of the university rejects the opportunity to become the team's new head coach, Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) steps in and, with help from the school's flustered principal (David Strathairn) and the surviving assistant coach (Matthew Fox), attempts to resurrect the team from the ground up. McConaughey scurries about the screen like an anxious, oily slickster and at first appearance his comedy-tinged antics are a little off-putting. But the film, with its warranted preoccupation with loss and mourning, benefits greatly from his peculiar and energetic presence. He is an outsider, like the new team members that assume the duties of the deceased, and he's navigating distressed waters just like everyone else in the town. He keeps the theme of the picture alive and keeps it from wallowing too heavily in its portrait of pain.

The film fails to capitalize on some potentially dramatic possibilities. There should be a greater investment in exploring Lengyel's family life, as well as the difficult transition the replacement players must conquer. As a result, these "outsider" characters remain outside and slightly out of reach. The picture would benefit enormously from exposing these differing points of view.

What the film conveys with great authority is the gravity of the town's suffering and their timid reluctance to move on. Director McG ("Charlie's Angels") has crafted surprisingly effective moments that visually channel the depth of the town's despair without showboating. Fearing that he'll miss his granddaughter's piano recital, an elderly fan is given a seat on the doomed flight early on in the picture. Later, the granddaughter is briefly shown playing the piano during his memorial service. There is a startling simplicity of expression in moments like these, and in many of the film's beautifully composed frames. It's the subdued observations that get at you more often than the robust ones do.

That's not to say that the film isn't loaded with its fair share of maudlin sentimentality. The somber strings cue us into the "big" moments nearly every time. The character and story arcs hold no surprise; you can chart every emotional beat from a mile away. Stories that aim to illustrate the dreaded, overused "triumph of the human spirit" motif, by their very nature, rely on the safety of predictability for their effects. What really matters in "We Are Marshall" is the authenticity of these emotions. To that end, the brunt of the picture's success rests on the actors' shoulders.

None more so than Anthony Mackie. Mackie plays Nate Ruffin, one of the last surviving players who became the catalyst for the team's reinvention. He textures his performance with a quiet determination that emanates from a barely-controlled rage. When he tearfully confesses his deepest regrets to McConaughey late in the film, he creates one of the most genuinely powerful cinematic moments of the year. His performance works because it's all heart. So does the film. B+


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