We Are Marshall (2006) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG for mild language
Running Time: 127 min.

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Mackie, Matthew Fox, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, Kate Mara, January Jones, Kimberly Wilson, Arlen Escarpeta, Brian Geraghty, Robert Patrick
Director: McG

Screenplay: Jamie Linden
Review published December 27, 2006

On the evening of November 14, 1970, an airplane crashed near an airport in West Virginia, killing all 75 passengers on board.  Among the passengers were the majority of the Marshall University football team (known as the Thundering Herd), along with many of the coaching staff (including head coach Rick Tolley), as well as some of the boosters, and the flight crew.  The event would devastate the home city of Marshall University, Huntington, West Virginia, as many children lost a parent on board, and many parents lost a child. 

The predominant feeling among the school and the surrounding community would be to discontinue the football program, as they no longer had the players to field a competitive team, and playing the games would only remind them of the tragedy week after week.  A movement was created to push for the program to continue, resulting in the hiring of Wooster College football coach Jack Lengyel, who did the best he could with remaining players, some who were players on the university's other sports teams, as well as young new recruits, to field thatteam, and to try to bring pride back into Marshall and the Huntington community.  We Are Marshall tells the story of the team's rebuilding process.

Given that the story surrounds the aftermath of a major tragedy to befall a school sport program, as well as the devastation to a community, it's difficult to imagine how such events could possibly become material worthy to make a sports drama about.  After all, sports films almost always try to fit a feel-good mold, and given that the team would be beyond any hope of a miracle to have a championship season after losing all of their best players and coaching staff, finding a silver lining on this massive cloud would prove about as difficult as Marshall even winning one game that season.

Giving a great deal of credit to first-time screenwriter Jamie Linden, he does manage to find that silver lining by not concentrating on the game of football except as a means to heal wounds.  Contradicting a speech made at the beginning of the film about how players are never remembered for what they do on the field if they don't win, Linden has Lengyel (McConaughey, Failure to Launch) give a speech stating the exact opposite, as the film concentrates more on the adversities that the players, coaches, school officials, and members of the community had to overcome in order for the program to not crumble under the overwhelming weight of the tragedy's grim reminder before, during and after every humiliating defeat.  It's almost perfunctory to mention nowadays that dramatic license is taken quite often, as is typical of sports films, so one shouldn't mistake the events of the film or the characters within it as reflective of absolute reality .

No, there isn't much to smile about, but the movement beyond tragedy does make for some bittersweet moments of emotion, which is nicely developed by that normally flashy Charlie's Angels director that critics love to hate, McG (I suspect many of the negative reviews this film has endured come almost solely due to McG's name being attached).  Strong performances also abound, with a nice character portrayal (albeit a tad hammy) by McConaughey as the slightly loopy, maverick coach who saw champions where there were none to be found.  Anthony Mackie (Half Nelson, Freedomland) provides the best performance of the film as Nate Ruffin, a former teammate of the fallen Herd, who wasn't on the plane due to an injury.  Ruffin would became the team leader, both on the field and off.

Those looking for a typical feel-good sports film, please be aware that this isn't a film about winning or losing football games so much as it is about continuing a tradition in the face of a crippling tragedy.  It's about finding courage in an area where everyone wants time to grieve and forget, while also holding some hope that the memories of the loved ones lost will never be forgotten.  Through this film, they never will be, as this is an emotional and respectful telling that makes for a fitting memorial to those lives lost during the fateful crash, as well as the fortitude of the students, staff, and families that continued on. 

Qwipster's rating

©2006 Vince Leo