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We Are Marshall (2006)

Warner Home Video
DVD Released: 9/18/2007

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 9/5/2007

In my recent review for Dexter: The First Season, I applauded the makers of that show for closely adapting the source novel. In my view, this made their job a whole lot easier. One would think that the same would be true with a movie based on a true story. Simply take the facts, maybe condense things here or there, and you've got a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. As it's based on a real life, the drama in the story should be inherent, right? Re-telling a true story is one thing, but as We Are Marshall proves, re-creating the drama is something else entirely.

We Are Marshall opens on November 14, 1970, when the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team played East Carolina in Greenville, NC. Following the game, the team boards a chartered plane for their trip back to Huntington, West Virginia. Assistant Coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) elects to drive back, as he plans to visit potential recruits in Virginia. While preparing to land near Huntington, the plane crashes, killing 75 people on board, including the entire football team and coaching staff. The University and the town of Huntington are devastated by this tragedy and acting University president Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) decides that the football program will be suspended for the time-being. But, a student movement, lead by surviving player Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), convinces Dedmon to rebuild the team. After an extended search, Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), is chosen to lead the new team. Beginning with only three players, Lengyel begins to rebuild the Thundering Herd. He convinces Dawson to return to coaching, and starts the recruiting process. Lengyel learns that finding qualified players won't be half as difficult as winning the hearts and minds of the Marshall faithful.

We Are Marshall combines the popular genres of the "true story" movie with a sports-themed movie where the audience is asked to root for the underdog. In this sense, the movie wants to be like recent hits Remember the Titans, Miracle, or even Friday Night Lights (although the team in that film wasn't always the underdogs.) These movies examined the real-life stories of sports team that encountered either a tragedy or an unusual amount of drama. And while We Are Marshall wants to mimic these films, there's something missing from its formula.

The movie begins in a very promising manner, and there's no denying the fact that the plane crash scene is chilling. It's difficult to not feel for the University and town which, in an instant, lost so many loved ones. The scenes in which Nate stirs the other surviving players and then the student body to demand that the football program remain in place are rousing. But, when the next chapter of the movie begins, We Are Marshall suddenly runs out of steam.

It wasn't until I got the DVD that I realized that McG had directed We Are Marshall. I guess it's admirable that this man who's renowned for music videos and the two Charlie's Angels movies would take on a drama like this. But, it immediately becomes apparent that while McG certainly knows how to stage a montage, he doesn't know how to maintain any drama. Once Lengyel begins to rebuild the team, nearly all of the emotion is sucked out of the movie. We see Dawson have a break-down. We see Lengyel take his team to the cemetery where the crash victims are buried. We see the ecstatic fans as the team takes the field. But, the whole thing left me cold. Just as McG presented a bland action/comedy with Charlie's Angels, he gives us a bland sports/drama with We Are Marshall. (Although, to his credit, he's shot in the film in a very standard style and doesn't show any MTV flash.)

Much of the blame also has to go to the script. In short, there is not much character development here. We learn a little about Lengyel and a little about Dawson and that's it. The movie assumes that we'll get caught up in the emotion of the story and that we won't worry about who's who. The most confusing aspect of this are the characters of Annie (Kate Mara) and Paul (Ian McShane). Annie was engaged to Paul's son, whose was killed in the crash. Paul works at (runs?) the local steel mill and has a lot of influence over the University. In the opening scenes, it looks as if Annie is a cheerleader for Marshall, but after that, we only see her working in a diner. But, we never learn enough about them. Again, the movie assumes that since they both lost someone close to them, that we'll be on board for their story. The makers of We Are Marshall needed to either expand this subplot or lose it completely, as it takes away from the rest of the film.

Given the meandering story and lackluster direction in We Are Marshall, it's up to the actors to carry the ball. But, there is a fumble here as well. I can only assume that McConaughey is doing a dead-on impression of the real Jack Lengyel, but that doesn't stop his performance from bordering on camp. With his odd posture and the way he talks out of the side of his mouth, we don't see Jack Lengyel -- we see Matthew McConaughey behaving in a very strange manner. Matthew Fox is solid in his role, as is the always dependable David Strathairn.

The story of the 1979 Marshall University football team is truly a tragic one and it's understandable why someone would want to adapt this tale into a movie. But, We Are Marshall misses the mark as it takes this highly emotional story and turns it into a rather routine football movie.

We Are Marshall breaks for the goal line on DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video. The movie has come to DVD in two separate releases, one full-frame and the other widescreen. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image shows some noticeable grain (even my wife commented on it) and the colors are somewhat washed out at times. It's impossible to tell if this is an issue with the transfer or if McG has attempted to give the film a 1970s look, similar to what David Fincher did with Zodiac. Those issues aside, the image looks fairly good. Despite the color issues, the Marshall green always stands out, and the image does have a nice depth to it. I didn't detect any distracting video noise. The DVD offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Despite being a drama, we get some nice stereo and surround effects during the plane crash and the football games. The tackles are nicely accented by the subwoofer.

Given the semi high-profile nature of this movie, the We Are Marshall is woefully lacking in extras. The only true extra is "Legendary Coaches", a 37-minute documentary which is introduced by McG and features the story of the real Jack Lengyel. But, it also has profiles of other famous college coaches like John Wooden and Pat Summit. This will appeal only to college sports fans. "Marshall Now" is a one-minute PSA about the college. The DVD contains the THEATRICAL TRAILER for We Are Marshall, letterboxed at 2.35:1. The DVD opens with a 5-minute infomercial about West Virginia featuring the stars of the film. Hey, I've seen Wrong Turn, I know about West Virginia. When it comes to feature films, Warner has recently released one-disc movie-only versions and two-discs versions which are laden with extras. But, this is the only DVD release of We Are Marshall. A making-of documentary is listed on IMDB.com which isn't on this disc. Will we get a bigger release in the future?

UPDATE: On 9/18/2007, Warner Home Video also released We Are Marshall on Blu-ray Disc.  For this release, the film has been letterboxed at 2.40:1 and the transfer is 1080p 16 x 9.  As noted above, the film has a somewhat dated look, and so I was quite worried when I first began watching the Blu-ray.  The opening scenes showed a noticeable amount of grain and some lacked in detail.  There's one night-time shot of Annie in a car which is very grainy.  But, once the school decides to field a new team, it's almost as if the story begins anew, and the look of the transfer changes.  (This is all clearly a stylistic choice.)  The image suddenly becomes much clearer and sharper.  The grain disappears, revealing a very crisp image which shows a very nice amount of depth.  The colors look very good here.  Simply jump to one of the two football games in the film's third act to see this in action -- the green grass, the green jerseys, and the blue sky all look great.  The picture is very detailed and realistic.  The Blu-ray Disc has a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects.  This track doesn't push as many bits as a Lossless PCM track, but it still sounds good.  Again, just go to the games to hear the roar of the ground and the bone-crushing tackles to get a sense for the audio.  The stereo separation is excellent, as is the detail in the amount of sounds which can be heard.  The surround sound effects are fine, as are the occasional subwoofer effects.  Despite these positive traits, the audio on the Blu-ray Disc isn't as much of an improvement over that found on the DVD as the video transfer is.  The extras on the Blu-ray Disc are the same as those found on the DVD.  If you are interested in checking out We Are Marshall and have a Blu-ray player, this is clearly the way to go.

Review Copyright 2007 by Mike Long