MARSHALLING THE SPIRIT
Cast: Matthew McConaughey,
Running Time: 127 minutes
We are Marshall begins with the statement: “This is a true story.” Not “based on” or “inspired by” a true story, but simply “This is a true story.” And given the fact that the events that are depicted in the film actually happened in 1970, I suppose that it is fair to say that the story is true. But maybe that’s why the film isn’t as effective as it could have been had liberties been taken with the facts and time compressed enough to bring things full circle.
This particular true story tells of a town and university in recovery after a horrible tragedy befell the university’s football team. In so telling, the film ends up being less inspiring than it is depressing. It is a film that gives us so much heartache at the beginning and threads it throughout that it’s impossible to elevate the mood with exciting football action.
In 1970, an airplane carrying the Marshall University football team, staff, and coaches went down, with no survivors. Not only was this tragedy devastating to the university football program, but it left the school and the town of Huntington, West Virginia in a dark place. Today, armies of grief counselors would be on the scene to ply their trade. But back then—as this film implies—people were left on their own to cope with their despondency. And this was a difficult time in our nation’s history, too boot. Many of the young men’s friends on the Marshall football field were fending for their lives on a very different field in Vietnam.
The plane crash effectively ended the Marshall University football season. And initially the school’s Board of Directors decides not to field a team the next year. But player Nick Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), who was not on the plane at the time of crash, rallies the student body to convince the Board otherwise. This is an odd scene, because it appears as though the ultimate decision is made exclusively by the school president (played by David Strathairn). Again, since this is a true story, it must have gone down that way—thousands of students seem to be packed into the university quad shouting, “We are Marshall” all in unison. Truthfully, it is a Kodak moment.
The decision to continue football being made, the school’s president undertakes the responsibility to personally hire a head coach. The one remaining Marshall football coach, Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), is approached and offered the job. Red is heartbroken due to the fact that he was not on the plane since he was out on a recruiting trip at the time; he thus cannot take the job for onus of his dire sense of grief. After every available coach rejects the job, the president’s search for a coach looks bleak. And just when he was about to throw in the towel, the president gets a call from Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey).
Now, they might not have had grief counselors on campus back then, but they had Coach Jack. Played by McConaughey as some kind of goofy cartoon character, Coach Jack is a bizarre incarnation. McConaughey’s body language is straight out of the Popeye the Sailor handbook. He stoops over, juts out his chin, and talks out of one side of his mouth as some kind of perverse caricature. Matthew Fox, by contrast, is permitted to craft the character of Red Dawson into a real person, playing the straight man to McConaughey’s parody. And in one very touching scene, Fox almost single handedly saves the film.
But the biggest problem with We are Marshall is the nature of the true story itself. Unlike the no doubt Oscar bound United 93 that managed to exactly reproduce the events (at least, as we believe they actually transpired) on that sad flight on September 11, 2001, Marshall goes beyond just the crash, aiming to tell a more complete story about rebounding from devastating loss. While the reproduction of the events leading up to and immediately after the tragedy is very well executed, it is just too much to also tell the story of the team that followed in the year thereafter.