It's pretty hard to screw up a football movie. Toss in a "based-on-true-events" pedigree, as with "Remember the Titans" or last summer's "Invincible," and success is even more likely.
That's why the recipe for "We Are Marshall" seems like it can't miss. And, for the most part, it doesn't. There are some dubious Matthew McConaughey moments, a few too many scenes of folks crying, and more rah-rah slo-mo touchdowns than necessary, but there is also just enough reality to bring things back down to earth.
The setting is 1970 at Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va., the future breeding ground of Byron Leftwich and Chad Pennington. The Thundering Herd, the pride of Huntington, is returning home following a tough loss when the team's plane goes down. Suddenly, almost every player and coach are gone, along with the school's athletic director, several family members and fans, and even the team's play-by-play man. It was one of the great tragedies in college athletics, and director McG handles it in a way that is surprising in its restraint.
The plane crash sequence is stunning for its simplicity. It happens in the blink of an eye, with a quick shake of the camera and a sudden cut to black. That's all. No prolonged screams or plummeting jets -- simple and effective.
There are other moments that are striking for their straightforwardness, especially every scene with the great Ian McShane and the startlingly sweet Kate Mara. McShane, the star of HBO's "Deadwood," plays the father of one of the deceased Marshall stars, while Mara plays the fiance his son left behind.
The restraint evidenced by such directorial choices goes out the door with every appearance of McConaughey, who stars as Jack Lengyel, a happily married father of three and the only coach in the country willing to step in and help rebuild the Thundering Herd's football program.
McConaughey makes some odd choices as Lengyel, and they almost sink the entire film. His speaking voice is odd, his movements are odd, his hair is odd. The performance seems like an unsettling combination of Carrot Top, Terry Bradshaw, and a grizzly bear shot with adrenaline.
Luckily, the far more relaxed Matthew Fox, of "Lost," co-stars as Lengyel's assistant coach Red Dawson, one of the few members of the Marshall football staff who, through happenstance, did not board that fateful flight.
Also adding a welcome dose of intelligent acting is David Straithairn, fresh off last year's Oscar nomination, and, in what can only be termed a star-making performance, Anthony Mackie, as a survivor wracked with guilt.
Most of the plot points, including the big-game finale, can be guessed from a mile away, yet still seem mostly appropriate. It's too bad that several serious scenes, especially in the tear-drenched last twenty minutes, inspire muffled giggles.
"We Are Marshall" will likely be great inspirational fodder for Pop Warner and Little League teams across the country -- we're clearly in "Rudy" territory here.
WE ARE MARSHALL
STARRING: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, David Strathairn, and Ian McShane
RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes
RATING: PG for emotional material, a crash scene, and mild language
THE LOWDOWN: A young coach fights to rebuild a college football program following a tragic plane crash.