Thursday, December 14, 2006

Inspiration overload (part 2)

When it comes to inspirational movies, the sports genre is quite reliable. Everyone loves a scrappy underdog. In recent years Walt Disney Pictures has monopolized the sports fable based on a true story (discussed here), so it's nice to see Warner Bros. try their hand at a real-life sports drama.

We Are Marshall tells the story of the proud working class people of Huntington, West Virginia, who had their hearts broken when a charter plane crashed in November 1970, taking the lives of 75 people, including nearly the entire Marshall University football team and coaching staff. We follow the town's efforts over the next several months to go about repairing itself.

The movie centers around a few mourners, some of whom have interesting stories: assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), who gave his plane seat up to drive on a recruiting trip; first-team defenseman Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), who stayed behind because of injury; and narrator Annie Cantrell (Kate Mara), a cheerleader who was engaged to the star running back.

Along comes Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) with aw-shucks determination that can only come from a town outsider. (If not historically authentic, the actor is at least an interesting casting choice, since he does aloof and goofy better than anyone.) He pressures the university president (David Strathairn) to force the NCAA to create an exception for freshman eligibility, and goes about forming a team. One excellent scene has Lengyel and Dawson seek pointers from their archrivals at West Virginia, then coached by Bobby Bowden (Mike Pniewski).

The film opens with the statement "This is a true story": a bold declaration that shuns qualifying words like "inspired" or "based."
While we know that Marshall football won't rebound immediately, we follow the characters along to appreciate small yet notable triumphs. There's a nice montage at the end of the program's development after this era, but what remains is the depiction of a pleasant, slice-of-life university town that the filmmakers strongly suggest still exists. While not as intentionally rousing a sports film as Invincible, I still found it inspirational.

Rocky Balboa is the sixth and final film in that franchise, and has been described by writer-director Sylvester Stallone as the emotional bookend to the first, Oscar-winning film. Structurally at least, he's absolutely right. Paced like a fiercely indie 1970s movie, it's slow and deliberate, a character study that avoids the thrills and glitz of earlier sequels. Rocky is an old, forgotten hero who seems pensive and tentative, but can't shake the fact that he still has a little fire in his belly ("stuff in the basement," he calls it).

He experiences some renewed interest from the sports media when a Then vs. Now video game speculates that he, at his prime, would likely defeat current champion Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver). Dixon is unchallenged by his opponents and unloved by boxing fans, so his people pursue an exhibition. Meanwhile, Rocky convinces his brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) and son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia) to help him train. Translation: montage!

The resulting bout is a contrast in priorities: Dixon is fighting not to lose, and Rocky is fighting to go the distance (much as he sought to prove in the first film). Everything else -- media attention, fan appreciation, actual results -- seem incidental.

My advanced passes to the movie were provided by a marketing company that worked on promoting The Passion of the Christ and specialize in working with church groups. There's nothing overtly Christian about this movie, so I can only assume that the common message is one of secular inspiration. To an extent, the message works. Rocky Balboa appeals to fans not because of nostalgia, but because of continued relevance. The end credits montage (another montage!) shows fans replicating Rocky's run up the Philadelphia art museum steps, an especially nice directorial touch.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Yeah, I saw that Rocky was being marketed as a "Christian" film. Kind of reminds me of the "Christian Inspirational" section at Barnes & Noble. Nothing terribly Chriatian about that, either.