We Are Marshall

Football Drama Scores Emotional Touchdown

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
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Football fans looking for cinematic inspiration have had a pretty good 2006 season. Invincible, Gridiron Gang and Facing the Giants all hit movie theaters this year, giving touchdown lovers plenty of underdog teams to root for. Arriving late in the game, but with plenty of positive buzz, is We Are Marshall . Like the previous football flicks of 2006, this one is based on an inspiring true story–one that might just get Monday morning quarterbacks and non-sporting types cheering alongside one another for a change.

In 1970, a plane carrying the entire Marshall University football team, as well as most of the coaches and several prominent fans, went down in rural West Virginia. All 75 people on board were killed. The deaths were an incalcuable blow to the school and left the small community of Huntington, W.V., in a profound state of shock.

The film begins with a depiction of that tragic night, rendered simply but with lasting visual impact. Following the expected outpouring of grief, the school’s president, Don Dedmon (David Strathairn,
Good Night and Good Luck ), makes a difficult decision to cut Marshall’s football program. Led by gutsy receiver Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie, Crossover ), the squad’s surviving roster of four injured players rallies the student body to stand behind the program–an iconic, trailer-worthy sequence with students chanting the school motto, “We are … Marshall!”

Despite some criticism–particularly from civic leader and school board president Paul Griffin (Ian McShane of “Deadwood”)–Dedmon begins the difficult search for a new head coach. Unable to find one willing soul among Marshall’s alumni, Dedmon stumbles across enthusiastic oddball Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), who volunteers his services. Sincere and single-minded, Jack talks the team’s shellshocked former assistant coach (Matthew Fox from “Lost”) into signing up for a one-year stint. Together, the two coaches go searching for a new team. Unable to compete with regional powerhouse West Virginia University, the school comes up with some creative recruitment, pulling new players from baseball, basketball and soccer teams.

Though it plays around with the usual sports movie conventions,
We Are Marshall is continually respectful and reverent to its characters and settings. The film is laced throughout with emotional moments–whether it’s a father incapable of dealing with his son’s death, a young woman unsure of what to do with her fiancé gone or a football player unable to cope with his survivor’s guilt. (There may not be any crying in baseball, but there is apparently a lot of crying in football.) How many of the stories contained within We Are Marshall are strictly true and how many are the construct of Hollywood screenwriters is largely irrelevant. They feel real. And that’s the important thing.

For all its weepy
Brian’s Song aspirations, the script never feels overtly manipulative. In fact, there aren’t a lot of easy answers here. Even with all his homespun sports homilies, Jack Lengyel is forced to admit he doesn’t have all the answers–on or off the field. There are moments when McConaughey overplays his hand, turning Lengyel into a sort of bumpkin savant. But the script keeps him in check, offering genuine moments of helplessness and confusion that feel painfully real. “If you’re looking for a miracle, you’ve come to the wrong man,” Lengyel says early on, and the film sticks to that premise, resisting the urge to turn the ragtag team into superhuman overachievers. In a world where winning is everything, perhaps there are times when simply getting out there and trying really is enough.

The film is very well constructed. The details are sharp, the style inventive without being distracting or disrespectful. I hate to admit this, since the film is directed by one McG, a man whose previous work samples (
Charlie’s Angels, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle , the “Fastlane” TV series and assorted Korn/Sublime/Offspring videos) haven’t shown the slightest indication of subtlety, depth or talent. On a couple of occasions, the film leans too heavily on the music soundtrack to set the temporal mood. It’s unnecessary, especially considering how well the film’s design captures time and place. But that’s a minor gripe among many praises.

Since time immemorial (or the late ’20s, at least), sports movies have thrived on the come-from-behind victory.
We Are Marshall one-ups them by holding out for the ultimate come-from-nowhere victory. In reality, Marshall had the worst record of any team in the country throughout the ’70s. Nonetheless, the team persevered. More importantly, Huntington persevered. We Are Marshall demonstrates a deep, heartfelt understanding of what a sports team can mean to a community–particularly a small town, where identity, pride and local spirit can all be wrapped up in a simple game.
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