We Are Marshall (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

We Are Marshall is precisely what one expects from a true sports story: it's uplifting and inspiring. Although the film does not ascend to the pinnacle of its genre (arguably occupied by Hoosiers), it's not too far down the mountain and the added ingredient of a town's grief allows director McG to explore some issues not normally tackled in this sort of motion picture. We Are Marshall stays surprisingly true to the facts, keeping embellishments to the minimum necessary to make the story cinematic. (The opening caption states "This is a true story" not "This is based on a true story" or "This is inspired by a true story.") As feel-good stories go, this is more successful than some of its higher profile multiplex competition.

On November 14, 1970, a chartered plane crashed just short of an airport in West Virginia. On board were 37 players and six coaches from the Marshall Thundering Herd varsity football team, as well as the school's athletic director and various influential supporters. While many individual high-profile athletes have died over the years as a result of plane crashes (Roberto Clemente, Thurman Munson, Payne Stewart…) , the November 1970 incident marks one of the few times when an accident has wiped out an entire organization. (This has happened to several soccer teams as well as the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating team.)

We Are Marshall opens on the fatal day, showing the Marshall team losing their game, boarding the plane then never arriving home. In the wake of the accident, the initial impulse is to suspend the program. However, a rally organized by one of the surviving players, Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), who did not make the trip due to an injury, prompts University President Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) to change his mind. Several prominent citizens, including Paul Griffen (Ian McShane), whose son died on the plane, oppose Dedmon's change of heart. After feelers to numerous "name" coaches are rejected, Dedmon is forced to settle for Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey). Lengyel lures back Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), the only living member of the previous staff (he elected to drive rather than fly). Red, however, is haunted by survivor guilt. Using players from the junior varsity squad, incoming freshmen, and players from other sports, Lengyel builds a team for the 1971 season, but a single question hangs over the endeavor: Is fielding a team with little chance to win honoring the dead or mocking them?

Manipulation and melodrama go hand-in-hand with the sports genre, and they are present here, although not in such overwhelming quantities that they make the viewer feel awash in a flood of sentimentality. There are three emotional high points: the rally that encourages Dedmon to re-consider suspending the team, the moment when Dedmon's petition to the NCAA is approved, and the concluding football-related sequence. As one would expect from a movie whose roots lie in a tragedy, there are valleys as well. McG keeps the tone well modulated so the movie never threatens to become bogged down in depression.

It is acknowledged up front that the new Marshall team will have difficulty competing. In fact, they would win only two games that inaugural season and wouldn't do much better in subsequent years. The question asked by everyone is simple: What honors the dead more - allowing a sub-par team to play or keeping the football stadium as quiet as a tomb for several years? Different characters have different answers, and it's the inclusion of this element that makes We Are Marshall a little different from the standard-order clichéd sports drama.

The film isn't perfect. It's at least fifteen minutes too long and has one character (Kate Mara as the girlfriend of a dead player) whose inclusion is superfluous. (The emotional catharsis she receives doesn't translate to the audience - there are other scenes for that.) The dialogue is a ripe with a few too many noble and pompous-sounding speeches. (I'm not referring to the pre-game pep talks, which are supposed to be overdone, but some of the regular lines.) This over-italicizes the movie's emotional core.

We Are Marshall features a couple of nice performances. Matthew Fox (whose character wisely does not get on the plane this time) does a good job conveying the capped volcano of grief and guilt that bubbles beneath Red's surface. Anthony Mackie provides fire as the highest-profile survivor who believes the burden of leading the team rests on his often injured shoulders. In the lead role, Matthew McConaughey is merely okay. His performance is uninspired and laconic; perhaps he was attempting mimicry rather than acting. The supporting cast includes John Sayles favorite David Strathairn and Deadwood's Ian McShane.

It's easy to become cynical about true-life sports stories. There are too many of them. Most appear to be clones of one another and, after a while, it's almost impossible to tell them apart even though they may not all represent the same sport. I don't know if We Are Marshall is sufficiently different to stand apart after the passage of time, but it is well-made and tells a story with a degree of emotional resonance. For those who appreciate the genre, this is worth seeing.

We Are Marshall (United States, 2006)

Director: McG
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, Anthony Mackie, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, Kate Mara
Screenplay: Jamie Linden
Cinematography: Shane Hurlbut
Music: Christophe Beck
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-22
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1