On November 14, 1970, the plane carrying the Marshall University football team and others home from a road game crashed while attempting to land during a storm. The were no survivors. The impact, of course, devastated the campus and surrounding small town that thrived on fall Saturdays filled with football. Despite strong resistance, Marshall University ultimately decided to continue the program, and the movie follows the first year of the rebuilding process.
Matthew McConaughey plays Jack Lengyel, who takes on the job of head coach after actually lobbying for the position and goes about the seemingly impossible task of building a football team almost from scratch. McConaughey was very good, never once coming out of character. At times you actually wanted the guy to be more polished, but the film never loses touch with the fact that this was a football coach spearheading an effort that involved so much more than a team.
In fact, the film’s biggest success may be never losing touch with the tragedy of the crash, which is given plenty of play in the beginning of the film. A decent secondary story follows a grieving father, Paul Griffin (Ian McShane), and girlfriend (Kata Mara) of one of the star players that died in the crash as they attempt to move on surrounded by constant reminders of football. The father actually plays a pivotal role in trying to stop the university from continuing the program.
Anthony Mackie gives an emotive performance as Nate Ruffin, an injured player who wasn’t on the plane and fights to keep the program. Injury ultimately ends his career, but a very touching scene between he and McConaughey in the locker room before a game as Ruffin begs to play is one of the best in the film.
Despite the emotional content, the movie manages not to get bogged down in it. The battle between the university president and the NCAA to allow freshmen to play was done in a fun way. A few practice scenes offer lighthearted moments, as does a scene with a young rival coach, Bobby Bowden. (The class Bowden showed should win the legendary coach a few more fans.)
A film like this almost always leaves a few holes. Possibly some will have wanted more on the kids or assistant coach, Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), that weren’t on the plane, but it’s impossible to cover everything. There’s also the question of reality versus fiction in this type of film that, at least for me, can take away from a film if there’s too much discrepancy; for instance, I read that the dramatic scene in which students gather outside of the meeting held to decide the football program’s future simply never occurred. The biggest flaw, which seems to befall most sports movies, is the big play ending. Nonetheless, We Are Marshall is worth watching.