"We are Marshall" is the true story of what happened when a chartered plane crashed just short of the airport in Huntington, West Virginia on November 14, 1970, wiping out the varsity football team for Marshall University. Having to replace virtually the entire team and coaching staff, university President Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) hires Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), who is not a Marshall alum, but who thinks that he can help a team, school, and community devastated by the tragedy. The story ends a year later, when the Thundering Herd play their first home game of the season. While watching this true story play out it might occur to you that this inspirational story reaches its climax when Marshall played in its first game under Lengyel the week before, because just fielding a team again is a major achievement, but "We Are Marshall" stays faithful to the genre it represents and represents well.
In many ways the most emotional part of the movie is the opening half-hour, that starts with the end of the final football game at East Carolina and plays out the rest of that fateful Saturday. In depicting the plane crash, the film's director McG gives us bits and pieces of the moment of realization for those who will be touched by this disaster as the news breaks. Wide shots of the forest on fire contrast with the downpour in which a wife learns that her husband was not on the plane. Inspirational movies of this sort are intended to provoke strong emotions if not tears, but rarely is the first act as emotionally powerful as it is in this 2006 film. The plane crash was not some place far, far away, but on the outskirts of town. The students and townsfolk not only got to see the rescue vehicles streaming to the crash sight, they also got to go and see the fiery wreckage in the woods for themselves (at least they do in this film).
The other main characters in this film are those touched hardest by the tragedy. Matthew Fox plays Red Dawson, the assistant coach who gave up his seat on the plane at the last moment, Ian McShane is Paul Griffen, the father of the team's star running back, and Kate Mara is Annie Cantrell, who was engage to Griffen's son. One of the things I respected about this film is that not everyone is able to walk back into Marshall's football stadium for the big game, let alone be healed by the final credits. Far and away the most compelling character in the entire film is Anthony Mackie's Nate Ruffin, the star defensive back who stayed in Huntington because of an injured shoulder. It is Ruffin who organizes the students to keep the football program and who wants to keep playing despite re-injuring his shoulder time and time again. His motivation seems unique, because Ruffin wants his team back, and it is Ruffin who is the heart of the Young Thundering Herd.
There are moments where the comic relief elements of the film run against the grain a bit too much for my taste; McConaughey's Jack Lengyel comes across as a bit of a bozo early on and there is a sense in which we do not get to the "real" him until his big speech before the Young Thundering Herd's first home game the season after the tragedy. But then a running gag involving West Virginia University, which keeps getting all of the recruits that Lengyel and his coaches have on their board, takes a nice twist, and I have to admit that there needs to be some levity in telling story. Furthermore, as much as I hate slow motion for big plays in sports movies, I really like the way McG intercuts flashes from all that has happened in this film into that moment, and the wonderful way that history and drama are intermixed during the final credits. For my money, "We are Marshall" is one of the better inspirational sports movies in some time.