We Are Marshall
directed by McG
(Warner, 2007)

About halfway through We Are Marshall, some recently recruited football players enter their dorm room with some takeout they've just picked up, see a case of Falls City beer sitting at the foot of one of the beds, crack it open and bust out some brews.

To the new-to-town players, it's a seemingly harmless act. But those who've been with Marshall since the beginning know it's not. Those who paid attention early on know that the case was specifically ordered by a former Marshall University player from a pay phone at the airport just before he and the rest of his team boarded the plane that was supposed to take them back to Marshall, but instead crashed on a wooded hillside not far from the school, killing everyone onboard.

It's a great symbol, drawn from a carefully crafted image, and it sets up a pivotal scene. And that's one of the things that makes Marshall work -- the integration of sight, sound and symbols.

The others? Well, there seems to be no shortage of them.

First, you have a compelling true story: that of a plenty-gritty steel town, Huntington, W.Va., that lost many of its sons -- not to mention husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers -- when the aforementioned plane went down on Nov. 14, 1970.

That story is brought home through the lives of several people who were affected deeply by the tragedy, most notably four: Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), a player who wasn't with the team the night of the crash because of an injury; Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), a coach who wasn't on the plane because he decided to make a recruiting stop on the way home from the game; Paul Griffen (Ian McShane), a steelworker and a member of the university's governing board whose son, Chris (Wes Brown), died in the crash; and Annie Cantrell (Kate Mara), a local waitress engaged to Chris.

Each feels the loss in a somewhat different way, and each responds differently: Ruffin and Dawson feel guilty they weren't with their team when tragedy struck, but Dawson withdraws, at least initially, while Ruffin mobilizes the student body to press the school's governing board not to suspend its football program. Meanwhile, Cantrell retreats into her waitressing job, and Griffen into a booth at the restaurant where Cantrell works.

Second, you have Matthew McConaughey as Jack Lengyel, the quirky, cryptic coach who calls Marshall out of the blue to volunteer his services when no one with college connections wants the job. McConaughey -- who I confess is not usually one of my favorite actors -- makes Lengyel a wonderful character to watch.

His facial expressions are priceless: his mouth, it seems, is always on one side of his face or the other, but never in the middle where it belongs. And his hand gestures have the unusual capacity to insert action into dialogue-heavy scenes.

But best of all are his answers or explanations, none of which at first seem to have anything to do with the question at hand, but all of which evolve into some kind of applicable metaphor. Of these, easily the best is about having to change his 4-year-old's poopie pants. But I'll let you wade through that one on your own.

Third, you've got some great game footage -- not a lot, as Marshall is more about putting a team back on the field than it is about winning games. But without good game footage, even the best sports films -- and I'm wagging a finger in your direction, Invincible -- lose street cred.

Fourth, there's the effective use of montage -- not to get from game to game, as most sports films do, but to show you how the key characters react to the seemingly endless series of conflicts that arise from Marshall's attempts to regain its perspective. They show you, instead of telling you, how people feel -- a much more efficient and effective modus operandi.

Finally, you've got a great sense of period. Director McG -- a.k.a. Joseph McGinty Nichol -- reminds us of what it was like when people wore ugly plaid pants, sported sideburns that looked like they could turn into beards at any moment and gathered around transistor radios to listen to away football games. We even get to see a clip from Kelly's Heroes at the local movie theater and hear a Neil Diamond tune on the radio. (Talk about a cure for nostalgia. Whew!)

Sports-film fans (and the fathers of the same) have been through a lot in the past few years. We've been pressed to Remember the Titans and played an endless string of games under those Friday Night Lights.

But it wasn't until now that We Are Marshall. And you know, it feels pretty good.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

11 April 2009

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