Marshall: News Flash! Chadwick Boseman is Great in a Biopic

Marshall Plot Summary:

Based on the story of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.  Set in 1941 when Marshall was a lawyer for the NAACP, Marshall travels to Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a man accused of sexually assaulting a well-known socialite (Kate Hudson).  Marshall’s co-counsel includes Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), an insurance lawyer whose own career is put on the line with the highly publicized criminal case.

Even though we just saw David Oyelowo brilliantly play Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, can we get to the eventual movie where Chadwick Boseman plays him as well?  Let’s also make sure he checks off Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and Rosa Parks.  At this point, why not?  Chadwick Boseman has already played Jackie Robinson, James Brown and can now add Thurgood Marshall to his resume.  The difference between Boseman in Marshall compared to 42 and Get on Up is that he finally gets a biopic worthy of his performance.

The first ten minutes had me worried.  Marshall is waiting for a train after having won another case.  A brigade of racist scumbags immediately pop up on screen with no good build up or tension whatsoever, spouting off dialogue in a manner we’ve seen 900 times.  It was cliché city.  Here we go.  Another whatever biopic that is going to waste Chadwick Boseman.  From that point on though, the movie fires on all cylinders.  It does what many great biopics do, which is not go down the entire history of the guy’s life, but one specific event.

Chadwick Boseman walks onto the screen all business.  He makes it look easy.  Every time Marshall speaks, you are glued to his every word.  It’s a fierce performance from Boseman.  He could have said “big fat pink elephants,” and I still would have been riveted.  Marshall is always in control, as I would imagine he was in real life.  Boseman masters that control and channels it through his performance, whether it’s the subtle anger you can feel building, or the cocky confidence that oozes out of his face.  There are certain moments where Boseman’s dialogue slices through the theater.

While Boseman will certainly be in the mix for Oscar talk, it’s one of those performances that lacks a big Oscar scene.  He’s just consistently great.  Where this movie works where other Boseman biopics underwhelm is that the movie isn’t completely reliant on his performance.  This is just as much Josh Gad’s movie as it is his.

It’s no wonder they wanted Josh Gad, as they portray Sam Friedman as the most likable character ever.  Friedman is completely thrown into this case, which makes his role so intriguing.  At first he’s merely Marshall’s puppet, as Marshall dictates everything he says in the court room.  A real Lebron James/Tyronn Lue relationship if you will.  As the case progresses though, Friedman comes into his own, and it’s that dynamic between Marshall and Friedman why this movie works so well.

The movie is called Marshall, so the themes of racial injustice are obviously front and center.  As this takes place during World War II though, the movie makes a brilliant decision to also incorporate Jewish prejudices when it comes to Friedman.  It’s something very unexpected, but very effective.  It strengthens their bond throughout the film.  Their relationship is also contentious at times.  Even though Marshall is fighting for a just cause, it unwillingly puts Friedman’s life and career on the line as well.

While Boseman and Gad shine, the film is peppered with great supporting roles.  Sterling K. Brown could make a case for a Best Supporting Actor nod, playing the defendant, Joseph Spell.  He does get his Oscar moment on the witness stand, giving a brutally honest speech that sums up the entire movie in a nutshell.  Kate Hudson is even effective (yes, Kate Hudson) as the socialite who accuses Spell.  You realize she has her own sympathetic demons, which makes the ending between these two characters very complex and thought-provoking on its own.

The other performance of note is James Cromwell.  As the opening credits rolled and I saw his name, I immediately said “He’s playing a judge.”  Yup.  I was right.  He’s the hardnosed 1940’s judge you’d expect, looking for any technicality to rule against Spell.  When he’s forced to rule fairly though, we get one of the biggest movie pauses since the guy on the ferry in The Dark Knight.  Oh man, that was a dramatic pause for the ages.

With all the great performances, the director must be credited.  Reginald Hudlin offers his own unique style, which is hard to do in a biopic.  He brilliantly incorporates both Friedman and Marshall into the closing argument, putting his stamp on the fact that this is their movie.  He wisely chooses to keep the personal relationships, ala Marshall’s wife (Keesha Sharp), at bay.  Whenever there were personal subplots though, they were very timely.  Credit also goes to Marcus Miller, who composes a stellar 1940’s style score.

The movie certainly suffers from standard “been there, done that” biopic clichés.  And even though Friedman is very likable, there were times where the film goes too TV movie with his character, as they play up Gad’s comedy.  There’s a sequence where Friedman gets momentum in the court room, and there’s a bit too much winking at the audience.  What I loved here is that the stoic Marshall pulls him aside and reminds him of the severity of the situation, almost like Marshall was responding to my criticism.

This is what the better biopics do.  They focus on one event that perfectly sums up who Marshall is.  They don’t need to go through the entire guy’s life.  If there is one scene that could net Boseman an Oscar nod, it’s towards the end of the film.  Marshall tells Friedman this horrific, cringe-worthy story about something really bad that happened to him.  You’re grabbing the seat as he goes through this painful event.  Then when he finishes, Marshall turns it into not only the funniest scene in the movie, but maybe the funniest scene of the entire year.  It’s brilliant writing and acting, and something alone that is worth the price of admission.

Rating: 8 out of 10 (Great)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.