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Marshall Review

Potential Knockout Pulls Punches and Lacks Impact

Thurgood Marshall, the late supreme court justice, influenced the tides of history. In Marshall, Chadwick Boseman steps into these impossibly large shoes, taking the role of Marshall in the eponymous film. Marshall presents Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, a case in which New York lawyer and NAACP heavy hitter Thurgood Marshall is sent to Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend a man accused of murder. Not being legally permitted to practice law in Connecticut, Marshall is forced to team up with Sam Friedman — an insurance claims lawyer who was roped into the case against his will. Not only is the case a fight in the battle for racial equality with the life of a man in the balance but the very future of the NAACP, who are running low on funds and in desperate need of a public win is also in jeopardy.

The backbone of the film is a standout performance by Chadwick Boseman, who comes alive as Thurgood Marshall. He oozes swagger and confidence. Sarcastic retorts and witty one-liners are delivered on schedule and make the film's version of Marshall highly endearing. Throughout the film, Boseman's Marshall always seems like the smartest man in the room and always has a plan. Boseman steps forward gamely when the film gives him the opportunity to tackle moments of weakness, regret, or sadness in the story.  Josh Gad stars alongside Boseman as Sam Friedman. Gad strikes all of the right notes as the reluctant and goofy sidekick, out of his depth but struggling forward nonetheless. The film clearly wants Friedman to come into his own as the movie progresses, but Gad becomes less believable and the portrayal less comfortable as Friedman is supposed to be commanding the screen all on his own.  

Swing and jazz elements stand out in the first act score, keeping things upbeat as we are introduced to the cast of characters and giving the film a definite feeling of the time period. As the film moves into the courtroom for the second and third acts, the score transitions to more generic sweeping highs and staccato suspense and fades into the background.

The film tackles an important moment in history — where the odds are stacked against the protagonists and they are fighting against the full weight of normalized bigotry. Able performances of an accessible script executed effectively make Marshall an enjoyable journey that fills the theater with energy for it's two hour run time. However once the credits roll and the viewer has a moment to reflect on the true scope of the event, the time, and the experiences of the characters — it is striking how little impact the film has. The stakes never seem that high; the twists and turns of the court case are just a bit too convenient. The movie presents opportunities for the depth of a moment to be explored, and then does nothing to do so. Throughout the film, viewers see protesters and counter protesters, but this struggle between the progressive equal rights advocates and the old town segregationists only really erupts on screen in a brief and forgettable cutaway. The film hints at how Marshall's tireless advocacy cost him and his family, but those moments arrive abruptly and pass as quickly as they came, never to be revisited. 

Marshall is careful to keep the narrative limited to the particular court case, offering very little historical information about the titular character.  Paired with the coming-of-age of Sam Friedman with which the story of the court case must share the screen, this feels like the platform for a buddy-lawyer film franchise. The light touch that keeps the film loping forward in it's enjoyable rhythm, making it fun to watch, but also irons down the nuance of this dynamic time and high stakes occasion into a one dimensional cookie-cutter triumph-of-the-human-spirit film.  

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Marshall Review
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