Sunday, December 24, 2006

Reel To Reel: We Are Marshall

It's more than a game.

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, David Strathairn
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Mild Language, Football Violence

Calling We Are Marshall a football movie is like calling Rocky (or the more timely Rocky Balboa) a boxing movie. It's not even fair to call it a sports movie. It is a movie about a town left heartbroken by the death of 75 people in a plane crash: nearly the entire football team of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, including the coaches, athletic director, and several boosters. At times it is emotionally raw and overwhelmingly sad. Even the film's triumphant moments are laced with tinges of sadness. The Marshall football disaster in November 1970 remains one of the worst sports tragedies ever, yet it is one that many have either forgotten or never heard about until now.

The film begins with Marshall University's tough loss to East Carolina followed by the unthinkable. Even as the town is mired in grief, acting university president Donald Dedmon (Strathairn) makes the gutsy decision to go ahead with the football program. No coach with Marshall connections will touch the job. But Jack Lengyel (McConaughey), coach at a small college in Wooster, Ohio, senses an opportunity to help a town heal.

Lengyel is bombastic and full of energy, a person who smacks of Attention Deficit Disorder back when it was called hyperactivity. Life is simply an extension of football, with a play for every situation. When he comes to town with a folksy swagger, it's easy to see him as disrespectful to Marshall's state of shock. "Don't talk about my son like you knew him," says a football father to Lengyl at one point. But the new coach is determined to rebuild the program however he can.

The new leader of the Thundering Herd soon finds collective grief is just the beginning of his challenges. Promising recruits sign with other schools, and Marshall must fight to get an NCAA waiver to play freshmen. Coaches siphon players from other sports to round out the team, and football returns, albeit under a long shadow.

Director McG (known to his parents as Joseph McGinty Nichol) shows he can handle the depth and emotion of the material with nuance, setting this film leagues apart from his over-the-top Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Still, he keeps the film moving, often to the beat of period classic rock, and he does his best to avoid falling into the sports movie cliche trap, even with the compulsory elements of the Big Emotional Speech and the Great Victory At The End. The film keeps a comfortable focus, limiting most of its screen time to Coach Lengyel, assistant Red Dawson (Fox), and team captain Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie). In many ways, the film is more about Lengyel than the team itself as he works to prove that the hope of an entire town is not dead.

We Are Marshall is on my list of the best football movies ever, up there with Friday Night Lights and North Dallas Forty. It does for football what The Natural did for baseball or Hoosiers for basketball. It's about time. I'm amazed the story of the Marshall football tragedy and re-birth didn't make it to the screen earlier, but the wait was worth it.

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