Directed by McG
Written by Jamie Linden
The story of the Marshall football team is one that, while I cannot claim that “I know well”, is still one I feel most sports fans have heard about. Such a tragedy. And perhaps the further we get away from the event that occurred, fewer and fewer people know about it, or remember it. There really has not been much else like it in the sports world, where an entire team plane crashes, killing everybody on board. I cannot fathom the feelings of loss and sadness if that we to ever occur again. And we can sit here and say that Marshall was a D-II school, not a powerhouse, etc. etc., but those were still young men and their coaches, fans, and boosters who perished. It is a tragedy any way you cut it. But imagine the story today if the Alabama team plane crashed for instance. Or for that matter, if some rural D-III school experienced the same hurt. In a time when sports are so important to so many, I think any tragedy on this scale would once again open the wound that cut so deep for so many when Marshall lost their football team.
While the loss of Marshall is at the heart of this film, the story follows what happened in the aftermath. After the tragic plane crash that claimed all but 4 varsity players on the Marshall Thundering Herd football team, injured players who stayed behind in Huntington, West Virginia, the school administration was ready to cancel the football program. But Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), one of those surviving players, fought with all he could to rally the town in support, to honor the fallen by continuing to play. They convinced the school president (David Strathairn) and the top booster (Ian McShane), who had lost his son in the crash. With nothing to build from, they turned to an unwanted football coach (Matthew McConaughey) who came to them for the job, and convinced the one coach (Matthew Fox) who survived to return and rebuild the program from the ashes. It wasn’t about winning, it was about playing.
There is a great deal I could talk about in regards to this movie, but most of all I think it does the story justice, and rallies around the true life story of a town and university struck by tragedy, somehow picking themselves up and out of the doldrums and honoring those they lost by returning to the gridiron. There is a moment late in the film where McConaughey explains this to Matthew Fox’s character, who is doubting their motivations and intentions to bring football back. Usually in sports, winning is all that matters, but a year after the tragedy, it isn’t about winning, it’s about keeping playing, so those in decades to come can worry about winning. Marshall’s story is truly remarkable, as they once again rose to prominence long after the tragedy. The filmmakers honor the story and do it justice with the impact it had on the Huntington and Marshall community.
I think that is evidenced by the rather impressive cast they assemble for the film. Strathairn and McShane are veteran stars who bring the film a certain cache, while getting young up and comers like January Jones, Kate Mara and especially Anthony Mackie goes to show the care they took in casting. And the ensemble is very good throughout. The exception is McConaughey, who, while bearing great star power then and especially now, feels like he belongs in a different movie. It very well could be that coach Lengyel was like this, and his performance is true to life, but he stands out so much like a sore thumb in conjunction to the rest of the movie. And it isn’t even that he isn’t grieving like the rest, it’s simply because he is hamming it up big time. The film needs some lightness, but McConaughey’s lightness is the wrong kind and throws everything off.
Luckily, the rest is plenty strong enough to sustain it. While McConaughey’s performance is definitely a distraction, director McG is able to focus on all the right characters and storylines to make this an effective emotional experience about what sports can mean to a town, and how it brings people together in both times of tragedy and triumph. It manages to nail that connection to the sport, which is something that might seem easy, but many films in the marathon can only mimic. With We Are Marshall it feels very genuine. The truly tragic and emotional true story at its core brings out the best in this movie. It’s not a story that the filmmakers take lightly, and that shines through. We Are Marshall is a good love letter to those that passed, as well as those who picked up the program from the ashes.