- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

“We Are Marshall” tells the story of the 1970 airline disaster that took the lives of nearly every player on Marshall University’s football squad.

The crash and its inspiring aftermath should at least have yielded a three-hankie drama, if not a stirring ode to a small town’s perseverance. Instead, we’re left to wince at the sight of Matthew McConaughey slipping into cinematic irrelevance.

Director McG retooled the creaky “Charlie’s Angels” series into two witty, watchable romps. Here, he proves incapable of stirring our emotions even while jabbing the cinematic equivalent of onion slices under our eyes.

The film opens with the Huntington, W.Va., school suffering a last-minute loss at East Carolina University. Teammates and coaches trudge onto a plane to go home while Marshall supporters all across the state lick their wounds.

The accident occurs within the first 15 minutes, leaving fans of Marshall’s “Thundering Herd” broken. We watch people hear the news via their radios and television, but we’re never privy to the smaller moments of grief, just flash-card emotions that virtually anyone telling this story could have conveyed.

The university plans to scrap the football program temporarily, if not forever, in the crash’s wake. However, Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), one of just a handful of team members who were not on the flight, persuades university president Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn, somehow rising above the dramatic slop) to reconsider.

The university and its boosters need a team, any team, to help them move on.

Starting a credible program from scratch is nearly impossible, but Dedmon finds a coach named Jack Lengyel (Mr. McConaughey) to tackle the assignment.

The scene in which Lengyel wins Dedmon’s approval is a howler. We wouldn’t let Jack coach a Pop Warner squad after his insipid audition. Lengyel’s big innovation in the film, besides talking exclusively out of one side of his mouth, is to steal a signature play from rival West Virginia University.

How inspiring.

To say the rest is formulaic would be an injustice to competently derivative hacks. Secondary characters come and go without affecting the narrative. Scenes slog on so long we wonder if we’re watching the film’s outtakes.

Twice we witness key scenes anchored by the device of a writing implement drawing lines through the names of potential coaches or players. McG gives the lining out his undivided attention while the movie crumbles around him.

The director is clearly out of his league here, and we’re beginning to wonder if his star is as well.

Mr. McConaughey will soon be too old to be the pretty face in a feature, and he seems incapable of leveraging his genetic good fortune into a respectable career.

“We Are Marshall” dearly wants to honor those who died as well as the survivors who carried on the university’s football tradition. Those brave souls deserve a better tribute than this.

*-1/2

TITLE: “We Are Marshall”

RATING: PG (Emotional thematic material, a crash scene and mild language)

CREDITS: Directed by McG. Screenplay by Jamie Linden

RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes

WEB SITE: http://wearemarshall-themovie.warnerbros.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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