Take Two

by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & We Are Marshall & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & hate films that pander to sentimentality. This is either because a) sentiment is a cheaper, easier thing to arouse in people than even anger or b) because it gets me every time. I'm not proud that sentiment gets to me, but I can't do anything about it. I hate that seeing all the old ladies at the end of A League of Their Own made me weep for my own mortality -- when I was 10. I hate that the thought of taking Old Yeller behind the barn still makes me cry (I'm seriously laid bare emotionally here right now. You're the first 100,000 people I've ever told about that.) I hate cloying redemption in film for much the same reason. I hate that I left Top Gun as a kid beaming ear to ear after Iceman asked Maverick to be his wingman.

I tend to dismiss movies that pull such sentimental, redemptive trickery as cheap and saccharine. Sports movies are always -- without fail -- the worst offenders. With sports films, the redemption is hard-wired; as is the gauzy sentimentality. That's perhaps because sports showcase our most reasonable expectations of heroism. It's so easy -- among the childhood ubiquity of youth leagues, cable and memorabilia -- to dream of personal greatness coming on the playing field that we naturally project our delusions of grandeur onto whatever team of plucky underdogs takes the silver screen.

And yeah, I used to practice Super Bowl-winning touchdowns and buzzer-beating put-backs. I'm not proud of it. Nor am I proud that sports films get to me-films that feature intense sacrifice most of all. (Riding the pine for four solid years in high school gave me a hell of a messiah complex.)

Maybe, then, I dismiss films like We Are Marshall because I'm uncomfortable with what enjoying one would say about me. I'm nothing if not a glutton for exposing my own emasculating flaws, though, so I've been waiting to really throw myself blindly into a film like this for a while, just to see what happens.

I'll have to wait a little while longer, though (Rocky Balboa is out now, right?), because while the source material for We Are Marshall is perfectly ripe for a little on-field tear-jerking, and I myself was ready to do some uncomfortably heavy weeping, things didn't click. With uneven pacing; confusing, inexplicable tone shifts; and direction so ham-fisted it resembles my jump shot (flashy but usually way off the mark), the film ultimately flounders.

We're talking about the uneasy, contentious and ultimately heroic way in which a university, a student body and a blue-collar, sports-obsessed town overcame probably the world's greatest sports tragedy (it was at least a runner-up to that Uruguayan rugby team's forced cannibalism). In November 1970, a chartered plane carrying the Marshall University football team crashed just outside the college town of Huntington, West Virginia. After much anger, frustration, sorrow, debate and attempts to suspend the program indefinitely, three of the surviving players successfully lobbied to keep the team alive. The season that ensued (the two decades that ensued, really) was a disaster of blowouts, blowups and second-guessing that stood ultimately as a testament to perseverance and heart. The film that ensued, though, features a bizarre caricature from Matthew McConaughey, a lifeless turn from the usually stunning Ian McShane, and a half-dozen gaudy, single-tear moments that stand as a testament to failed promise.

I guess I can't expect much from director McG (bad name), who gave us a couple of crappy Smash Mouth videos and Charlie's Angels Full Throttle, but I was actively courting my inner sentimentalist. Basically, I had thrown one long and deep. All McG had to do was haul it in and score. He couldn't. (Rated PG)