We Are Marshall

| December 27, 2006

If you are hoping to see a movie that will uplift you and reaffirm your faith in the human spirit this holiday season, you should probably roll the dice on Rocky Balboa or Pursuit of Happyness. While at times a very moving film, We Are Marshall, directed by McG (Charlie’s Angels), never quite reaches the climax that moviegoers have come to expect in an inspirational sports movie. We Are Marshall is the true story of the 1970 Marshall University football team, who lost most of their team and coaches (along with some loyal fans) in a tragic plane crash. After a push by the handful of remaining players and students, the university reluctantly agrees to continue the football program the next season.
Enter eccentric, sometimes kooky coach Jack Lengyel (played by Mathew McConaughey), who volunteers for the impossible job of starting a Division 2 football team from scratch. With the help of Red Dawson (Mathew Fox), the assistant coach of the original team (who, by a twist of fate, wasn’t on the plane) and a university president with a heart of gold (David Strathairn from Good Night, and Good Luck), the new coach begins the task of rebuilding the team. The rest of the film aspires to be an inspirational account of how a team and a town “rise from the ashes” to rebuild a community and a football program. Unfortunately, We Are Marshall can’t compete with the fictional inspirational sports movies to which we have become accustomed. Although the audience wants to root for Marshall, the movie lacks the heart needed to get the ball across the goal line. Hampered by the real events and Marshall’s abysmal record during their comeback, the movie can’t overcome the letdown of reality.
The movie plays strong the first 45 minutes. You will find yourself fighting back tears within the first 20 minutes; the tragic loss of the town and university is shocking and emotional. The movie starts to unravel when the plotline changes from a team tragically taken before their time to a story about a coach and a school trying to rebuild a competitive team. What would be great as a fictional story about a man and a team who start from scratch and rebuild a team that miraculously comes together in the last hour to become winners is ruined by the often disappointing real-life element. In real life, things are seldom miraculous, no matter how hard we would like to believe otherwise. The truth is that coach Jack Langyel, with his noble intentions, manages to rebuild a mediocre football team that went on to win only two games in the 1971 season. To Langyel’s and the university president’s credit, for the first time in NCAA history, a college team was allowed to play freshman, allowing for Marshall to have an edge in recruiting new players. The freshman recruits come to Marshall for playing time more than they come to honor the memory of their fallen comrades, and this detracts from the unity needed to make this team the inspirational force the movie tries to portray. The central idea of the film in portraying the 1971 team as the heroes who rose from the ashes to honor the real tragic heroes who died on the plane becomes a bitter pill to swallow for some in the community and for the audience in the end. The reality of the situation becomes too real and gets in the way of the movie’s ultimate victory.
The much better story buried in this movie is how a town copes with facing life at all after so many of their loved ones are tragically taken in an instant. The real road to recovery likely had less to do with football and more to do with a town coming together to accept the unacceptable. Glimpses into this aspect of suffering are seen in some touching scenes with Ian McShane (Deadwood), who plays Paul Griffen, the father of one of the lost athletes. These few scenes make you wish the story revolved more around the people who lived in the town and actually felt the loss rather than a coach and players who arrive after the tragic incident who more believably saw an opportunity to get a foot in the door in Division 2 football than an opportunity to honor the memory of a team and a town. Mathew Fox does well as the assistant coach, who reluctantly returns despite being haunted by memories of his old team and suffering survivor’s guilt because he should have been on the plane with them.
The main problem with this film is that its hero is hard to get behind because he is not directly tied to the tragedy. At no point in the film do you buy that Coach Lengyel is sacrificing and working to honor the memory of a team he didn’t know and had no investment in. He seems more like an enthusiastic coach who relishes the challenge of building a winning team against impossible odds, which would be great except for the fact that he builds a losing team. Arguably, this could be a good premise for an inspirational sports movie, but there are no moments where the team who is internally struggling comes together and learns any valuable life lessons or overcomes the odds to become winners. Another major part of the film that is lacking is the character development of any of the new players. We see little to no scenes where the old players and the new players come together. You don’t get to know a single one of the new Freshman players who are brought into the film. When in reality the biggest inspiration of the football aspect of the story would be how 18 year old football players deal with the pressure of living up to the previous team and playing against players two years their senior. We Are Marshall pins its hopes on the fact that audiences will fall in love with Coach Lengyel and his story will be enough to carry the film but sadly it is not enough and what we are left with is a story that would make for a great read in a Sports Illustrated article but falls short on the big screen.
We go to the movies because things can be better than they are in real life. That is why the Rocky franchise accomplishes what We Are Marshall didn’t. We don’t really believe that a 60-year-old man could challenge the heavyweight champion of the world, but we wish he could, and movies are the only place where impossible dreams and wishes can come true.

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