A film review by Craig J. Koban
WE ARE MARSHALL
2006, PG, 138 mins.
/ Matthew Fox:
Red Dawson /
Donald Dedmon / Ian McShane:
Paul Griffen /
McG / Written by
Matthew McConaughey: Jack Lengyel / Matthew Fox: Red Dawson / David Strathairn: Donald Dedmon / Ian McShane: Paul Griffen / Anthony Mackie: Nate Ruffin
Directed by McG / Written by Jamie Linden
Between 1964 and 1983 Marshall University’s football team suffered an absolutely dismal streak of losing seasons. Perhaps adding salt to their wounds was the fact that The Thundering Herd was involved in the worst tragedy in college sports history, an event that cost the lives of 75 people.
The team’s Southern Airways Flight 932 was a charted DC-9 commercial jet flight as it left the airfields at 7:35pm on November 14, 1970. All 37 players from the team were aboard, as well as eight members of the coaching staff, 25 boosters, and five flight attendants. The team had just suffered a heartbreaking l7-14 loss against East Carolina University. Through a disastrous chain of events the plane – soon after takeoff – crashed into a hill near the Tri-State airport in Credo, West Virginia. Everyone that was on board perished that evening. It marked the first time that an entire sports organization was decimated in one accident.
The impact of the crash on the university’s town and residents was swift and powerful. Because the plane trip was the team’s only charted flight of the season, many of the people on board – aside from the players and coaches – were prominent citizens of the town. It has been recorded that 70 children lost one parent in the crash and 18 were subsequently orphaned. The effect on the college’s football team was equally damaging. It almost single-handedly discontinued the football program for good. The large question that loomed heavily over the town and university after the crash was whether it was a decent idea to continue the university’s football team.
WE ARE MARSHALL deals with this disaster and its aftermath and is a sports film that rises above the usual clichés that typically dominates the genre by dealing with thoughtful and sensitive issues that often never see the light of day. Most football films usually preoccupy themselves with dealing with the more obvious physical obstacles that impede a team’s path to victory. WE ARE MARSHALL does have many of the staple ingredients of uplifting sports films – like the rag-tag team that is assembled who lack skills needed; the fiery and determined coach who is determined to prove to the world that he and his team are worthy; the final “big” game where everything seems on the line…and so on and so on. However, the one aspect that makes the film stand a bit further than the usual assortment of witless and endless sports pictures is in how it deals with large-scale tragedy.
Usually, teams and their players have to overcome odds to win. In WE ARE MARSHALL the largest obstacle is a moral and ethical one: Should a University continue a losing legacy of football after a disaster has destroyed their team? Moreover, would it be more fitting to pay tribute to a dead team by not dishonoring them with a losing team of nobodies? Would it be a better move to remember those that fell by not hastily putting back a relatively unskilled team back on the field?
On these levels, WE ARE MARSHALL is a really absorbing, moving, and thoughtful football film. It's a stirring tribute to a fallen sports team that does a decent job of not sugarcoating the tragedy for claptrap theatrics. In a lesser film the sentiment and heart-rending themes could have been viciously slammed down our throats to the point of being woefully saccharine. WE ARE MARSHALL is bittersweet and uplifting, to be sure, but the really inspiring aspect of the film is not in its football scenes or in the possibility of the team marching triumphantly to final victory. This is a sports film that’s more attune with finding the right ways to both pay respect to the memories of victims of a disaster and finding the strength to do so. In the long run, winning does not really matter.
The film dives right into the heart of the subject matter by opening on the team’s loss to Carolina and their doomed plan trip. Characters are quickly introduced and not thoroughly defined or developed, which is a smart move for helping underline the immediacy and shocking swiftness of the tragedy. It should be noted that the film is incredibly restrained in showing the actual disaster (we never see the plane go down or make contact with the field). Instead, there is a jolt of a camera pan and an immediate cut to a black screen. We don’t need to see the plane go down. The approach the film takes here helps hammer home the catastrophe perfectly.
Of course, the University’s hometown of Huntington is irreproachably grief-stricken and dismayed. Like FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, WE ARE MARSHALL wisely equates a town’s sense of identity and pride with the athletes they cheer for on the playing field. In the wake of all of the deaths, the University’s immediate gut reaction is to terminate the football team “indefinitely.” However, one of the surviving players, Nate Ruffin (played with an earnest sincerity by Anthony Mackie) thinks otherwise. Obviously, guilt permeates through him, seeing as an injury was the only thing that kept him off of the plane. University president Donald Dedmon (played by the great David Strathairn) initially balks at Nate’s idea to re-field a team while the town is still going through a deep mourning period. However, after Nate gathers what appears to be hundreds of townspeople and university students to crash a university hearing that was likely to cancel the football program, Dedmon has a quick change of heart.
However, there will be obstacles. Some of the town’s vocal minority – including one dead player’s father, Paul Griffen (Ian McShane from TV’s DEADWOOD) does not share Dedmon’s desire to have the football program continue. Clearly, it would prove to be a Herculean task of getting a team fit and ready to play. Since the disaster took everyone on the team (including coaches), Dedmon had the thankless task of not only finding new players, but also an entire coaching staff. He has a wide and expansive list of coaches he has handpicked for the job. Not surprisingly, all of those that he calls turns down his offer. He first approached Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), the only surviving coach (he offered his plane seat to one of the other coaches so he could drive), but he very quickly rejected his offer. Dawson is so overcome by an insatiable level of personal guilt that he feels that he may never be able to return to the field in any capacity.
After all other name coaches reject his offer, Dedmon receives word that another candidate not on his list has asked for the job. Jack Lengyel (played with a level of gung-ho intensity and eccentricity by Matthew McConaughey) is eventually given the job and is given a somewhat insurmountable task of hiring other coaches and – most importantly – players. Lengyel uses his enormous powers of persuasion and his boundless energy and enthusiasm to convince others to join his quest. He is able to commandeer Red Dawson back, albeit reluctantly, and is able to persuade Dedmon to make a pitiful and emotional appeal (in person) to the NCAA committee to allow Marshall to use freshman players (something the committee never allowed).
Slowly, but surely, Lengyel and company start to develop a team, but the road ahead proves daunting. Many athletes actually turn them down. Soon, it becomes apparent that the coaching staff will have to acquire people who may not have ever played the game at the college level before. Some of the boys they enlist play soccer and basketball and even more never played competitive sports on the level of college ball. Nevertheless, Lengyel is able to forge a team out of the ashes of the plane crash, but – again – it deserves mentioning that WE ARE MARSHALL does not shy away from the larger issues of assembling a new team. Is a team of pathetic misfits who will likely go on to lose horribly really paying tribute to those that died on November 14, 1970? Contrastingly, is it even more shameful to never put a football team back in the University’s stadium again?
WE ARE MARSHALL has some echoes of the first ROCKY in the sense that it never gees out of its way to highlight the notion that the big climatic game is all that matters. Like ROCKY, the film’s emotional epicenter is not so much in terms of winning. The most important thing to be learned are the lessons achieved on the way to the big match, like regaining a sense of respect and dignity. To the Thundering Herd, the real thing to be gained was playing with honor and passion in a way that would do an anguished town proud. The team that was forged only went on to win two games in the entire 1971 season and Lengyel further went on to have a horrible 9-33 record during his tenure with the college. The real victory for the team was an emotional one. They helped a town overcome one of its worst calamities.
Aside from the refreshing handling of the material, WE ARE MARSHALL gets considerable mileage out of its solid performances from most of the leads. David Strathairn has a tricky job of playing the college president who could have been a one-note and unsympathetic character. Instead, he paints Dedmon as sincere, honest, and – at times – a man who is the voice of reason when people don't want to hear it. McConaughey’s performance as Lengyel has all of the prerequisite gusto and vigor that is demanded out of genre characters like this. Perhaps the two finest performances are by its supporting players. Ian McShane finds the right delicate balance between wounded and anguished with a soft-spoken melancholy. Matthew Fox, as Red Dawson, gives a breakout performance as a coach that would rather not re-open fresh wounds by returning to the field. Fox gives Dawson a heartfelt amount of frank determination of inner torment and remorse.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of WE ARE MARSHALL is in the fact that the film was helmed by none other than – yes – McG, who previously directed two of the more unforgivably awful films of the last few years in the CHARLIE’S ANGELS series. Whereas those two films were bathed in wickedly excessive stylistic waters, McG shows a commendable amount of moderation and self-control with the material in WE ARE MARSHALL. Considering the genuine soullessness of the CHARLIE’S ANGELS films, McG’s compassionate handling of the film’s central issues is noteworthy. He does allow the story to run a little long and some of the characters are somewhat underwritten, but he has crafted a strong emotional surface here to draw the viewer in. I never thought that I would type these words, but I was frequently moved during this McG film.
WE ARE MARSHALL seems carved from the same material that other inspirational sports films are, but the real reason it works so effectively is primarily in how it defies and rallies above its more obvious clichés. At its core is a film centered in dealing less with the gridiron feats of a sports team and more with how the team is able to help a town deal with their tortuous grief after a life-altering tragedy. The film does have a big football game at the end whose outcome one can see from a mile away, but it’s the lead up to the game and the way the film uses its sports to identify with larger, more pressing issues that’s stands out. With great performances by its stars, a heartfelt and compassionate script that does not pour on the syrupy sentiment too much, and confident and tailored direction, WE ARE MARSHALL continues a recent strong tradition of memorable sports films with the likes of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, MIRACLE, and GLORY ROAD. The film is a uplifting and deeply felt rallying cry that pays deserved respect to a University and football team that overcame larger adversity than any other team can take claim to. The film superficially resembles a lot of dime-a-dozen sports genre films, but it is it handling of the material that allows it to stand further apart from the pack.