Sports films about plucky collegiate or high school underdogs overcoming the odds have become a significant sub-genre in recent years. Dating back to Hoosiers, recent examples include Glory Road and Remember the Titans. The success of that last film was the impetus for the recent spasm of similar films. The most recent member of the roster, We Are Marshall, certainly doesn’t disgrace the team, but neither does it stand out from the crowd. Eschewing flash for sound fundamentals, this movie keeps punching for four quarters.
The film recounts the story of Marshall University attempting to rebuild its Thundering Herd football program after a plane crash wipes out almost the entire team and coaching staff after a season ending loss to East Carolina in 1970. The only survivors are three injured players who stayed behind and one coach, Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), who skipped the flight to go on a scouting trip so another coach could see his daughter’s recital.
The school’s president, Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn), briefly considers cancelling the program altogether at the urging of the school’s board, led by the father (Ian McShane) of one of the deceased players. One of the surviving players, Nate (Anthony Mackie) rallies the student body in protest and Dedmon relents to their wishes to field a team for the 1971 season.
This is a tall order since they don’t even have a coaching staff and no one seems to want the job. Red Dawson, guilt ridden because he recruited many of the dead players, wants nothing to do with the team. Finding enough players to fill the roster is almost impossible, since the most of the players that the university could field will be freshman, which was not allowed in the NCAA back then.
Dedmon gets a call from Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), the somewhat eccentric football and lacrosse coach from the College of Wooster, who thinks he can help. After taking the job, he talks Red Dawson into returning for one more year and tasks Dedmon with an almost impossible assignment: convince the NCAA to waive its rule against freshman players.
Further complicating their task is the fact that the best local high school players are being snapped up by Marshall’s arch rival for new players, West Virginia University. Lengyel and his coaching staff have to get creative, recruiting players from other sports and looking outside their usual territory for more. Finally, Dedmon is able to get the waiver from the NCAA and the Thundering Herd is back in business.
They are, however, faced with one more question. Are they really honoring their lost players by fielding a team that promises to be a doormat for the rest of the conference for the foreseeable future? These questions take on a new immediacy after a dispiriting loss in their season opener.
Although I don’t claim to know much about the circumstances portrayed in We Are Marshall, I did get the feeling that they might be glossing over some of the messier details. Certainly, they vastly simplified the process of hiring Coach Lengyel. Also, they don’t bother to mention that another reason they considered dropping the football program had to do the team being kicked out of its conference the year before for a series of rules violations. This sort of clean-up is not atypical for this kind of movie but it would be nice to see a filmmaker someday leave the gauze off the lens.
The acting is solid, even if Matthew McConaughey does seem to be laying on the eccentricity a little too thick at times. Matthew Fox of TV’s Lost seems to have taken his characters perpetual worried expression from the small screen. He gives a thoroughly able performance but it doesn’t seem like a stretch for him.
Ian McShane and Kate Mara have a touching little subplot about Paul Griffen, a widower who eats dinner at the same booth of the same diner every night and Annie, the waitress who was his son’s fiancée. While it doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the movie, their story does a good job at giving a human face to the city’s collective grief.
Probably not surprisingly, this movie jerks tears with abandon and tugs at the heart strings like a team of Clydesdales, but We Are Marshall does not do it cheaply or feel particularly manipulative. Like any good “plucky underdog” sports movie, the story comes down to the final play of a big game, in this case a thriller against Xavier University, and lots of slow-motion photography ensues. Director Joseph McGinty Nichol doesn’t try to re-invent the genre and delivers a solid effort.