“This is a true story” begins the movie. Not “based on” or “inspired by,” but “this is.” And aside from a couple of composite characters, “We Are Marshall” seems to be the true and still largely unknown story of a school and community forever changed by tragedy.
“We Are Marshall” is a sports movie of sorts, but it doesn’t focus on football as much as one might expect. It tells the story of the 1970 Marshall University football team that died in a plane crash minutes before landing at home in West Virginia. All 75 people on the flight, including the coaching staff and a number of football boosters, were killed.
The movie, directed by McG (real name: Joseph McGinty Nichol) is set in 1970 and 1971, beginning on the day of the crash and extending to the start of the following season, when Marshall fielded a new football team to the delight of some in the Huntington community and to the disappointment of others, who thought it was too soon.
McG takes audiences back to polyester pants and long sideburns and into the hills of West Virginia that have harbored this story for 35 years. That story is released nationwide today with a terrific script from 26-year-old Jamie Linden, a Florida State University graduate who conveys this tragedy and aftermath with impressive sensitivity.
“We Are Marshall” puts audiences in two main narrative states: anticipating the expected plane crash, then enduring the uncertainty of how the various characters will respond to the accident.
McG, thankfully, doesn’t dwell on the crash–the screen cuts to black right as the plane malfunction begins. Instead, the tragedy is conveyed largely through the reaction of the townspeople who flock to the site upon news of the disaster. Afterward, we cut to a church where the community begins processing its grief. Devastation sets in, as it naturally would in a town where one funeral procession passes another, then another.
Marshall’s interim president, Donald Dedmon (a brilliantly awkward David Strathairn), tries to help the school and community heal, but different ideas abound about whether Marshall should try to play football the following season. Those opposed are represented by Paul Griffen (a composite character played by Ian McShane), who lost his son and wife in the crash.
“It wouldn’t be a game anymore,” he tells Dedmon. “It’d be a weekly reminder of what we lost.”
Marshall player Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), who wasn’t on the fateful trip due to a shoulder injury, represents those who support rebuilding the team. Other surviving players, however, don’t agree, saying their hearts aren’t into playing football.
Dedmon, however, at the urging of Marshall students, decides to pursue rebuilding the program. First thing: find a head coach. He approaches Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), a Marshall assistant coach who missed the doomed flight on account of a recruiting trip. Red, dealing with survivor’s guilt and grief, rejects the offer. So does everyone else Dedmon asks.
Enter Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), then coach of Wooster College in Ohio. Lengyel actually volunteers for the job, much to Dedmon’s surprise. But Lengyel says he’d like to help out—by doing what he knows how to do, which is coach football. His task is daunting.
McConaughey gives Lengyel an energy and enthusiasm that sharply contrasts with what the community is going through. He’s really a fascinating, if stylized, character.
Lengyel and Dedmon make an odd couple, to be sure, but they join forces to get Marshall back on the field in 1971 despite no staff and no players. The film’s middle concentrates on their hurtling these obstacles, which involves Lengyel approaching Red as an assistant. Red reluctantly agrees, but only for a year.
So they feverishly recruit. They petition the NCAA to let their freshmen play (something the NCAA disallowed at the time). They raid other programs at Marshall for athletes of size or skill. They even approach then West Virginia Coach Bobby Bowden for his playbook, boldly hoping he will share his arsenal of game plans and knowledge.
“We Are Marshall” actually doesn’t climax with the team taking the field in 1971, though Lengyel and Red do pull that off. So if the first game of the 1971 season seems abrupt in the story flow, that’s why. It’s not finished, because part of the story involves a crushing defeat in the first game, which causes some of the Marshall faithful, including Red, to again question the wisdom of playing that season.
“We’re not honoring them,” Red says, remembering his former players in front of Lengyel. “We’re disgracing them.”
So how the team responds is the film’s last act. “We Are Marshall” then becomes as much about how a community processes its reactions and decisionsas much as how it processes the original tragedy.
What is the relationship between sport and tragedy? Do our games help us work through our grief, or do they interfere and distract? Both? Does it have to be one or the other?
“We Are Marshall” is not a feel-good movie to close out the year. It doesn’t sugar-coat a community’s grief and loss. Though it has some light-hearted moments and is certainly inspiring, it is also sobering and severe at the appropriate times, of which there are more than you might expect from McG, best known for directing the “Charlie’s Angels” films. McG makes some bold narrative choices—something essential for telling this story. Watch Red emotionally break down near film’s end, and you’ll see what I mean.
Most viewers will be outsiders looking in at this past. But, from this outsider’s perspective, “We Are Marshall” seems sincere and serious in the telling of this story about, and tribute to, 75 lost souls. Given the pervasiveness of American sport, this first-class account of grief and football seems apt—and surprisingly grave for what most were expecting to be a “Hollywood movie.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG for emotional thematic material, a crash scene, and mild language. Reviewer’s Note: Take some tissues.
Writer: Jamie Linden
Cast: Jack Lengyel: Matthew McConaughey; Red Dawson: Matthew Fox; Nate Ruffin: Anthony Mackie; President Dedmon: David Strathairn; Paul Griffen: Ian McShane; Annie Cantrell: Kate Mara; Carol Dawson: January Jones; Sandy Lengyel: Kimberly Williams-Paisley; Reggie Oliver: Arlen Escarpeta; Tom Bogdan: Brian Geraghty.
The movie’s official Web site is here.