There are football movies, and then there’s this 800-pound gorilla of a gridiron weepie, which should be penalized for roughing the viewer. You may recall the full-throttle, swish-pan stylings of helmer McG (né Joseph McGinty Nichol) from the Charlie’s Angels
movies and TV’s Fastlane
, while watching the true story of a chartered-jet crash that killed all but four of the 1970 Marshall University Thundering Herd. The tragedy has been slavishly translated to the sports-movie formula by newbie scribes Jamie Linden and Cory Helms. As the team rebuilds its ranks the next year and prepares to take the field once more, there’s a hesitant administrator (Strathairn), a Guy Who Quits (Huntley Ritter), quietly supportive wives (Jones and Williams-Paisley), and bone-crunching footage – all of it handsome – of the underdogs’ training and season. More mechanical than nuanced, the movie gives us one naysayer, Deadwood
villain McShane, who seems to be a composite character for bereft parents. Because he’s a man of the earth, McShane is posed pensively against showers of steel-mill sparks in a hard hat, but the movie doesn’t take his pain very seriously: He’s simply the antagonist, and his job is to cause trouble for coaches Jack Lengyel (McConaughey) and Red Dawson (Fox) until he sees the light. With 75 people dead – an entire chunk of a small West Virginia town – circumspection seems appropriate, but the movie will have none of that foolishness. It wants you to pump your fist and cheer your grief away, no exceptions. Consider by comparison another movie about a small-town tragedy, Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter
– based on the eponymous Russell Banks novel and likewise inspired by a true story. One is quiet and reflective, the other noisy and aggressively heartwarming. Pick your flavor. I’m still figuring out what to make of McConaughey, who cuts a comic figure with his plaid double knit slacks and pomaded comb-over. As the requisite rule-breaking coach, he’s far weirder than, say, the Rock in this year’s Gridiron Gang
, and his motivational tactics approach coercion. But like little else in the movie, he has the power to surprise.