We Are Marshall is the umpteenth underdog sports movie of the year, and the third about football—it follows Invincible and Gridiron Gang, and all three are based on true stories that have been retooled to fit the triumph-over-adversity formula. Except that the circumstances of this true story make its inspirational elements a little more difficult to swallow: In 1970, nearly every member of the Marshall University football team and much of its coaching staff died in a plane crash. For a small Division 1-A school nestled in working-class West Virginia, the tragedy must have reverberated deeply, since towns of that size tend to rally around their teams in ways that big cities can't quite approximate. There's a moving story to be told about the resolve it took for this town and this university to overcome their anguish and field a team the following season, but We Are Marshall isn't exactly The Sweet Hereafter. It's committed to their grief only insofar as it can be exploited for soaring crescendos.
The film opens just before that fateful chartered flight home from an away game, spending enough time to establish the characters who were lucky enough to miss the plane and the townspeople who follow the team on the radio. After the crash, the idea of continuing the football program seems completely inappropriate, so the school president (David Strathairn) moves to quietly shut it down. But through the impassioned pleas of the student body, led by an injured player (Anthony Mackie) who didn't make the trip, the school reverses course and hires outsider Matthew McConaughey to take over the program. With the reluctant help of surviving assistant coach Matthew Fox, McConaughey assembles a ragtag team out of freshman recruits, walk-ons, and athletes from other sports on campus.
Directed with relative restraint by McG—"relative" being the key word, given McG's spastically incoherent Charlie's Angels movies—We Are Marshall accepts at face value the lacquered quaintness of a small town that seems to do all its business at the local diner. It takes place in the early '70s, but seems more like something from the '50s. The film briefly entertains a dissenting voice in Deadwood's Ian McShane, as a factory worker who lost his only son in the crash, and feels that renewing the program is in poor taste. But the filmmakers aren't interested in dwelling too long on a crippling tragedy; at heart, We Are Marshall isn't about grief or loss, but how these things can be overcome. It's uplifting, but shallow.