Focusing on the aftermath of America’s greatest sports tragedy, We Are Marshall tells the true story of a coach hired to rebuild a college football program after most of the players, coaching staff and even some fans lost their lives in a 1970 plane crash. I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed this dramatic sports film, especially the performance of Matthew McConaughey as Jack Lengyel, Marshall University’s courageous and dedicated new coach. Although I’ve never been able to accept this popular actor as a romantic leading man, he seems like someone else entirely in We Are Marshall.
McConaughey’s impressive transformation here includes important physical changes such as a different hair color and style, a heavier physique and an almost crouching walk (he’s definitely not “The Sexiest Man Alive” in this film!). But it’s his complete immersion in the personality of the character he plays that won me over. McConaughey projects a genuine sense of persistence, concern and eagerness to help that surely must be the qualities Lengyel personified during his mission to recreate Marshall’s Thundering Herd.
In We Are Marshall, when Lengyel hears about the devastating plane crash, he applies for the coaching job -- not realizing that everyone contacted has turned down the offer. In fact, it was touch and go concerning whether or not Marshall would continue its football program. Although football was always big in the little town of Huntington, West Virginia, many people thought it would be too painful to watch the games again. Others, like junior varsity squad member Nate Ruffin (portrayed passionately by Andrew Mackie), believed playing football was the best way to honor those who died so tragically.
After President Dedmon (David Strathairn, excellent as always) assigns Lengyel as head coach, the rest of the film deals with Lengyel’s obstacles in recruiting and training a new team as well as in convincing naysayers that, particularly for this situation, winning isn’t everything. Using his extraordinary will power and homespun psychology plus the reluctant assistance of a guilt-ridden Marshall coach (Matthew Fox from TV's Lost) -- who gave his seat to someone else on that fateful flight -- Lengyel succeeds in helping Marshall University and the community of Huntington handle their terrible loss in a positive way.
“A very large proportion of America’s most memorable films are permeated by loss," Howard Suber points out in The Power of Film. "It is the great universal theme, the emotion everyone can identify with and be moved by.” I think that’s the reason We Are Marshall resonated so deeply with me and why it will probably receive the same reaction from many other viewers -- even those who are not football fans.
(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated “PG” for emotional thematic material, a crash scene and mild language.)