It’s only a game. We as a nation — heck, we as a city — tend to over-emphasize the importance of sports. However, sometimes sports is transcendent and comes to mean something much more than grown men chasing a ball around. The movie “We Are Marshall” captures one of those transcendent moments in time.
The film is based on the true story of a devastating plane crash that claimed the lives of a majority of the Marshall University football team, their coaches, and some fans in 1970. Left with only three players who weren’t on the plane because of injury, the university decides to suspend the football program.
However, one of those players, Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) refuses to let the program die and rallies the student body into convincing school officials to let them have a team next season. That’s all well and good, but there is the problem of no coaching staff and, because the NCAA did not allow freshmen to play at the time, they would not be able to get any players.
University President Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) first looks to the one surviving coach, Red Dawson (Matthew Fox of “Lost” fame), who was supposed to be on the plane but switched at the last second with another coach to make a recruiting trip. Saddled with guilt, Dawson tells Dedmon thanks, but no thanks, as does every other potential coaching candidate who wants nothing to do with the impossible rebuilding task.
Dedmon then gets a call from Jack Lengyel (recently dethroned Sexiest Man Alive Matthew McConaughey) a slightly goofy, yet enthusiastic coach from Ohio who wants the job. Of course, Lengyel has his work cut out for him in convincing Dawson to join the staff, petitioning the NCAA for an exception to let freshmen play for Marshall, and then trying to teach a raw, inexperienced team how to play together.
On top of all that are forces within the town that think still having a team is disrespectful, including a high-ranking school official who lost his son in the crash, Paul Griffen, played by Ian McShane, who, as far as I’m concerned, should be in every movie made from here on out after creating one of the greatest TV characters of all time, Al Swearengen on HBO’s “Deadwood.”
Two things are surprising about “We Are Marshall.” One, the movie is able to find the perfect tone between being too much of a downer while still being intensely respectful to the people who were actually involved; and, two, that this tone was struck by typically ADD-addled director McG who is most famous for directing music videos and the “Charlie’s Angels” movies.
The movie is well cast and McConaughey was the perfect choice for Lengyel, a man who you’re never quite sure if he is brilliant or mildly insane. Of course, the same could be said about McConaughey, as well. And by having heavy hitters like Strathairn and McShane in supporting roles, the movie never lags when it leaves the football field.
“We Are Marshall” isn’t your typical sports movie, although at times it channels one. But because this is based on a true story, and the reality was that this young Marshall team wasn’t very good, the movie (mostly) avoids all the trappings of sports film cliche. Instead, I would consider this to be a sports-themed drama about moving on after tragedy and picking up the pieces.
All that said, there are still plenty of “rah-rah” feel-good moments to make you want to stand up and applaud.
“We Are Marshall” is a fine film that while at times feels a little too sentimental, still shows that there is value in sport and sometimes just taking the field is infinitely more important than winning.
“We Are Marshall” is rated PG for emotional thematic material, a crash scene, and mild language.