On Nov. 14, 1970, a commuter plane carrying the Marshall University football team, coaches and fans crashed on its way home from a game. Seventy-five people died. That overwhelming loss left families shattered, a football program in ruins and the small town of Huntington, W.V., reeling.
A key issue that needed to be resolved was whether to cancel the football program. Nate Ruffin, one of several surviving players who didn’t make the fatal trip due to injury, campaigned hard to honor his fallen comrades by resurrecting the Thundering Herd right away. Others, including University President Donald Dedmon and Paul Griffen, the grieving father of Marshall’s star running back, believed the community needed time to heal. Sharing that concern was Red Dawson, an assistant coach who ended up not getting on the plane. But Red reconsidered his return to the sidelines when a relatively unknown coach from Ohio, Jack Lengyel, volunteered to rebuild the team from the ground up. The duo faced all sorts of challenges as they strove to field a winning team while remaining sensitive to the hurting people all around them.
Although the head coach declares before the crash, “No one cares how we play the game. Winning is everything,” that mantra feels appropriately empty by the end of the film. In a private pep talk with Red, Jack dismisses winning as secondary to simply suiting up and keeping things going as best they can. Indeed, perseverance (“rising from the ashes”) is a recurring theme.
Nate demonstrates that determination by rallying the student body to insist that Marshall not eliminate football. Then he models it on the field when he plays through a shoulder injury. Filled with boundless energy and optimism, Jack consistently refuses to take no for an answer and encourages others to do the same. He tells Don, whose requests for a special exemption from the NCAA are soundly rejected, to pay the officials a personal visit in Missouri, which yields dividends. (Don even gets a game ball for his efforts.)
Families play, celebrate together and generally enjoy each other’s company. In fact, the thing that drives Jack to lobby for the Marshall job is love for his sons (“When I heard about what had happened, your situation, the only thing I could think about was how bad it would hurt if I was to lose one of them. And I thought … maybe I could help”). He later preaches about heart and character.
The reason Red isn’t on the plane is because he graciously trades places with a colleague so that the family man can get home in time to see his granddaughter’s piano recital. Paul and his dead son’s fiancée, Annie, comfort and encourage each other in meaningful ways. Annie’s boss is also caring and flexible as she copes with her loss.
Nate and a guilt-ridden teammate share a deep friendship that withstands a severe difference of opinion. He and his new coach start off on a sour note, but their mutual respect grows. One of Jack’s wise coaching philosophies for getting the most out of his players is “competition breeds improvement.” Athletes learn from their mistakes and grow. And as much as he wants to groom the offense in a particular direction, Jack realizes his players’ limitations and humbly abandons his plan in favor of one that will better serve the team. Keeping promises is important to Red, who feels responsible that, as a recruiter, he told 20 mothers of crash victims that he would take care of their sons.
When the Board unjustly fires a college official, Jack sticks up for the ousted man, willing to absorb any blame. Later, the guy responsible for leading the Board down that path expresses regret for an emotional decision motivated by his own grief. Jack and Red drive up to Morgantown to ask West Virginia Mountaineers football coach Bobby Bowden for pointers on running his “veer formation.” At first, their in-state rival laughs at their chutzpah and the notion that he would share secrets about his X’s and O’s, but quickly shows class and grace by giving the men full access to his film room.
A rival team puts a green cross and the initials MU on its helmets to honor the crash victims. Paul fondly recalls being baptized in the Ohio River. Red visits a chapel to do some soul searching. Post-crash funerals and memorials have a religious tone, be they in a church, at a gravesite or in the football stadium, where a prayer invokes God’s presence amid trials. A theater marquee reads, “The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away.”
A young man eyes Annie’s backside.
The plane crash (a blackout followed by numerous shots of burning debris) is handled discreetly, but scenes of panic and grief still may be too upsetting for younger children. Sports violence specializes in—but is not limited to—bone-crunching hits on the gridiron. We also see recruits’ toughness when a baseball catcher gets mowed down by a determined base-runner. During a pickup basketball game, a rough play levels two defenders. It’s a good thing Jack’s young son wears a helmet, because he gets knocked for a loop when he runs headlong into a tree. A fight breaks out in the Marshall locker room. Another scuffle occurs on the practice field.
Profanity will be the big spoiler for families drawn to the PG rating. More than 30 instances (mostly “h—,” “d–n” or “a–“) include eight s-words, the expressions “p—ed off” and “oh my god,” and one misuse of Jesus’ name.
A player sends his buddy to the liquor store for beer. Jack thanks his new neighbors for leaving a six-pack of suds in the fridge as a housewarming gift. Another case shows up in a dormitory room and, after one freshman recruit shocks his roomies by popping a tab, the others join in and go a little wild.
To make a point, Jack tells a crude story about his son soiling himself.
What is it with Matthew Fox and plane crashes? In this movie, his character survives by not stepping onto a doomed flight. On ABC’s Lost, he managed to walk away when his jumbo jet snapped in half like a dry twig before plummeting headlong onto a tropical island. Maybe it’s time he took a bus.
In We Are Marshall, the actor (who played wide receiver at Columbia University) explores a similar range of emotions as on Lost, once again finding himself in the role of a de facto leader struggling with inner conflict and worry following an incomprehensible crisis. He’s a powder keg of regret and self-doubt. Fortunately, Matthew McConaughey balances out Fox’s smoldering angst. His cockeyed optimism, crooked smile and the way he delivers lines out of the side of his mouth (many of which, sadly, are peppered with profanity) are lighthearted enough to provide a little comic relief without it feeling disrespectful. After all, this is a movie about an accident that took 75 lives and scarred countless others.
Watching We Are Marshall is a bit like listening to a tribute album made up of familiar songs rehashed for a noble cause. Sports-movie clichés abound on and off the field, but they’re forgivable inasmuch as they reflect the historical tragedy memorialized on film. Examples include the quest to keep the program alive, the traumatized player who struggles to get back in the game, the new coach forced to unite a divided community, the star player with a career-threatening injury, the motivational field trip to hallowed ground and the underdog school’s need to explore unconventional recruiting methods.
There are fresh moments too, but Marshall runs many of the same plays as its Hollywood forebears, this time dressed in bushy sideburns and loud plaids. Also, the coaches’ adoring wives aren’t well-rounded human beings so much as generic domestic caretakers and pretty barometers of how well things are going on the field (cuts to their expressions let anyone unfamiliar with the game know when to be elated, anxious or crushed). January Jones and Kimberly Williams deserved more complete characters.
Nevertheless, as with that well-intentioned proverbial tribute album I mentioned earlier, it’s hard to be too critical of art that so sincerely wraps its arms around a worthy cause and, in this case, pays homage to victims—living and deceased—by daring to reopen 36-year-old wounds. We feel for this devastated college town. And even though Marshall’s short-term recovery doesn’t include a Cinderella championship with a shiny trophy, the feel-good payoff is that it simply doesn’t matter. Winning isn’t everything. Victory lies not in gridiron glory but in unity, perseverance and being part of something bigger than oneself—even if that something is as basic as a healthy, loving family.