It’s easy to see why Hollywood loves the sports movie genre. As movie formulas go, its conventions are as sturdy and reliable as they come. Love and war may be more universal themes, but fewer than one in ten romantic comedies are any good, while war movies can be a hard sell. Plus, those genres tend toward the PG‑13 or higher end of the spectrum, potentially limiting audience share.
A sports flick promises uplift, overcoming adversity, sacrifice, teamwork (if it’s a team sport), and a crowd-pleasing finale — often enough with a family-friendly PG rating. Best of all, it doesn’t have to be great to be good enough. Films like Remember the Titans, Miracle, The Rookie and Cinderella Man connect solidly with sports fans and non-fans alike, while even lesser efforts, like this year’s Invincible and Glory Road, deliver more or less what they’re meant to.
It would be a shame if genre fatigue prevents We Are Marshall from being recognized as what it is, one of the better sports films in recent years. More than most films of its ilk, We Are Marshall rises above the clichés that define the genre, connecting sport to larger issues in an emotionally satisfying way.
Like many sports films, We Are Marshall is based on a true story — the 1970 West Virginia crash of a charter plane carrying virtually the whole Marshall University Thundering Herd football team, nearly the whole coaching staff, and 22 local boosters on their way home to Huntington, WV from a game against East Carolina University.
The disaster, possibly the worst in American sports history, devastated the town, and Marshall’s football program — already reeling from a recruiting scandal — seemed unsalvageable. University president Donald Dedmon doubtless spoke for many survivors when he declared the football program dead, making no provision for attempting to restore it.
Obviously, theirs is not the voice that prevails. Yet first-time screenwriter Jamie Linden effectively evokes the perspective of those who want nothing to do with football at Marshall. One player (Brian Geraghty, Jarhead), who missed the plane after oversleeping, is wracked by survivor guilt. Assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox, “Lost”) is haunted by memories of sitting in living rooms with the mothers of students he recruited, promising to take care of their sons.
But there are also those for whom it is essential that the plane crash not be the last word for the Thundering Herd. For player Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie, Million Dollar Baby), who missed the East Carolina game due to an arm injury, carrying on isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the only thing to do. When he learns about Dedmon’s decision, he rallies fellow students and residents to support rebuilding the program, prevailing upon Dedmon (David Strathairn) to hire a new coach. This turns out to be Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), a University of Akron graduate and assistant coach with no previous ties to Marshall University.
Yet can any cobbled-together Thundering Herd be more than a mocking echo of the team that perished? Is suiting up a ragtag team that can’t possibly win in the fallen players’ white and green any way of honoring them? Following an early humiliation, Dawson angrily points out to Lengyel that the late head coach and his team lived by the Vince Lombardi credo that winning is everything. “We aren’t honoring them — we’re disgracing them,” he argues, and, really, it’s hard to quarrel with him.
Most sports-movie coaches have all the answers. Refreshingly, Lengyel doesn’t. He isn’t a commanding authority figure like Coach Carter or Herb Brooks from Miracle. He’s a competent coach, but he doesn’t come in with a winning game plan for transforming a hodgepodge of unpromising athletes into a disciplined, united team. And he’s stumped by Dawson’s angry misgivings.
Eventually, though, Lengyel finds an intriguing rationale for what he’s trying to do — what he wanted to do when he first accepted the job, and has been trying to do since coming to Marshall. Surprisingly, it doesn’t involve debunking the idea that winning is everything. That, he agrees, is what sports is all about — and it will be years before the Thundering Herd is ready to rejoin that world. But the only way to get there is by forgetting about results, at least for now. Right now, Lengyel suggests, “it isn’t whether we win or lose — or even how we play the game. All that matters is that we play the game.”
In a way, it’s like the controversy over rebuilding at Ground Zero in the wake of 9/11. In the days and weeks after the attack, many New Yorkers and others hoped and even expected to see the World Trade Center rebuilt as soon as possible — if anything, bigger and better than before. When this was deemed impractical, plans for smaller towers or symbolic framework structures were discussed — but this seemed an unthinkable step backward.
Some, therefore, felt that rebuilding was impossible. There was no going back to the grandeur of the Twin Towers; the site could only become a memorial. Yet what would have been equally demoralizing to both sides, perhaps, would be the prospect of years going by and nothing done. Surely it is necessary to do something, whatever that may be.
We Are Marshall offers engaging glimpses into Lengyel’s process of trial and error as he tries to build a team out of thin air. Unable to compete with established teams at other universities for choice recruits, Lengyel is forced to resort to drafting players from other sports, but pins his hopes on inducing Dedmon to petition the NCAA to make an exception for Marshall for the rule prohibiting teams from playing freshmen.
When familiar plays prove unworkable for the level his players are at, Lengyel determines to adopt a simple but unfamiliar approach called the Veer — and has the chutzpah to waltz into archrival West Virginia University, where the play is well known, and ask for tips and advice on the Veer. After laughing in his face, the rival coaches give him the help he wants; in a touching postscript, we see that the WVU players have adorned the backs of their helmets with small crosses in rival Marshall green and the letters “MU.”
Those crosses are one instance of the intersection between faith and football that crops up in the film from time to time. As usual in Hollywood, religious functions are presided over by a clergyman who appears to be a Catholic priest; in another scene, a player blames a missed pass on not having his cross during the game.
McConaughey plays Lengyel with folksy eccentricity, but doesn’t necessarily inspire complete confidence; he’s no Yoda of football, or even Crocodile Dundee. He’s not the one right guy for the job: he’s just the one guy willing to do it. Fox is excellent as the conflicted Dawson, while as team captain Ruffin Mackie projects all the unswerving sense of purpose and commitment necessary, culminating in a touching scene in which Ruffin, who has relentlessly sacrificed himself for the team, is prevented from making one final sacrifice.
There’s little for the women on the sidelines to do, though we’re aware of the grieving fiancée (Kate Mara) of one of the crash victims, while the wives of Lengyel and Dawson (Kimberly Williams and January Jones) are suitably supportive. Ian McShane brings some complexity in a supporting role as a steel worker and university board member who is also a bereaved father and takes a paternal interest in his late son’s fiancée.
Given the kineticism of director McG’s over-the-top Charlie’s Angels cheesefests as well as his background in music videos, it’s not exactly surprising that the action on the field is everything football fans could want. Working with cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, who recently shot one of the most visually original sports movies of recent years, The Greatest Game Ever Played, he creates gridiron action sequences at once heightened and persuasive.
More surprising is the flair McG brings to shooting ordinary conversations and action off the field. The camerawork is consistently engaging, and the score makes effective if sometimes predictable use of period music.
Toward the end of the film, We Are Marshall makes a slightly unusual choice: The expected closing voiceover wrap-up, providing perspective on the future of the team and various characters in the years after the events covered in the story, takes place after the penultimate scene, rather than just before the end credits. It’s a fitting touch for a sports film that is more about the journey than the destination.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.