Review: We Are Marshall

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On November 14, 1970, 45 members of Marshall University’s football team and coaching staff along with 25 boosters perished en route home from a game against East Carolina when their DC-9 crashed during its approach, less than a mile from the airport. The loss took a great toll on the tiny town of Huntington, West Virginia, where the school is located, because so many lives were affected by the accident.

While the administration initially decided to discontinue the football team entirely, Dean Donald Dedman (David Strathairn) was convinced to reconsider by a student body led by the handful of players and the assistant coach who hadn’t been aboard the fateful flight. Although it would take over a decade for the program to return to prominence, that persistence ultimately paid off.

We Are Marshall, however, is an unusual sports flick, in that it is less concerned with the university’s ensuing gridiron feats than with how members of both the campus and the local communities dealt with their grief in the wake of the disaster. The film stars Matthew McConaughey as Jack Lengyel, the replacement coach brought in to resurrect the team from a combination of junior varsity players, walk-ons, and fresh recruits. And Anthony Mackie co-stars as Nate Ruffin, a junior co-captain who had been left behind on November 14th because of a shoulder injury.

The movie marks a radical departure for director McG, whose previous credits include relatively superficial fare, namely, Charlie’s Angels 1 & 2, and a host of music videos. But he more than meets the challenge, employing a talented ensemble to convey the nagging pall, which apparently had permeated Huntington in the wake of its enormous loss.

To its credit, the movie does its best to avoid the tried and true staples of the sports genre, such as that ubiquitous moment when the underdogs win the big showdown with a highly touted rival. So, what ultimately makes We Are Marshall special is that the satisfaction which it delivers doesn’t emanate from a cliché victory scene, but rather from an assortment of touching tableaus all along the way of the town and gown’s painful healing process. Bittersweet, but more than worth the emotional investment.

Excellent (4 stars).  Rated PG for mild epithets, mature themes, and a plane crash.
Running time: 127 minutes.  Studio: Warner Brothers

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