DVD Release Date:  September 18, 2007
Theatrical Release Date:  December 22, 2006
Rating:  PG (for emotional thematic material, a crash scene and mild language)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  131 min.
Director:  McG
Actors:  Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Mackie, Matthew Fox, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, January Jones, Kate Mara, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Brian Geraghty

Inspirational sports stories make for inspiring movies. Think of Glory Road, Hoosiers, or Rudy, in which underdog teams and players triumph over adversity.

The real-life story of the Marshall University football team tops them all. In 1970, the Huntington, West Virginia, team, traveling home by airplane from a game in North Carolina, died when the plane crashed near the airport. All 75 people aboard, including nearly all the team’s players and coaches, perished. We Are Marshall tells the story of the university’s halting steps toward rebuilding the program.

Bearing the weight of that rebuilding program is President Dedmon (Oscar nominee David Strathairn, in the film’s most nuanced performance), who must determine what effect a newly formed team will have on his school and the tight-knit college community surrounding it. In the film’s most stirring scene, one player (Anthony Mackie) rounds up a legion of Marshall students to send a strong, clear message to reluctant school board members, in whose hands rests the final decision.

It’s not giving anything away to say that, without the school’s green light to relaunch the football program, there would be no story to tell. Unfortunately, the climactic scene that persuades the school to move forward with football-player recruitment is also the film’s best moment. From that point on, the filmmakers (notably, director McG – yes, that’s his name, “McG” – and screenwriter Jamie Linden) shift the focus away from the weary, conflicted Dedmon, and on to coach-of-last-resort Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey).

Lengyel, decked out in the embarrassing plaid fashions of the seventies, is a family man with a simple motive for wanting the Marshall coaching job: He sees a community in pain and thinks he can help heal its wounds. With the aid of assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), and with a huge assist from the NCAA, Lengyel puts a team on the field, but ineptitude and player frustrations soon boil over.

“We’re bringing out the worst in them,” one of the assistants informs Lengyel. “They can’t win. We’re not honoring them, we’re disgracing them.”

But by discovering that it can’t live up to the motto of Marshall’s previous coach – “Winning is everything” – the young team also learns that, in the words of the new regime, “What matters is that we play the game.”

Such reorienting of expectations would be more commendable if the film didn’t resort to scenes of improbable victory, along with a coda listing the team’s great success in subsequent decades. The team “rose from the ashes,” as a narrator puts it in the closing moments of the film – but the movie burns out too early. News footage of the aftermath of the 1970 plane crash plays over the end credits – a stark reminder of the grim reality that is the basis for the Hollywood-ized version of the story we’ve just seen. As with the newsreel footage included in Bobby earlier this year, it makes the surrounding drama seem weak by comparison.