Distributed By: Warner Bros. Pictures
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
On November 14, 1970, Huntington, West Virginia experienced one of the worst tragedies in the history of the town. A plane, chartered to transport the Marshall University’s Thundering Herd football team from its game in North Carolina, crashed just short of its destination. The crash claimed the lives of everyone on board which included thirty-seven team members, head coach Rick Tolley, five assistant coaches, the athletic director, team trainers, boosters, the team’s play-by-play announcer and five crew members.
The tragedy affected everyone in Huntington. All grieved the loss of family members, teammates, friends, husbands, fathers. The enormity of the tragedy caused the President of the ill-fated university to consider an indefinite suspension of the football program. The program was saved through the efforts of team members who had not joined the Thundering Herd in North Carolina, Marshall University students and residents of Huntington.
With the help of the team’s remaining coach, Red Dawson, new head coach Jack Lengyel is charged with raising the phoenix from the ashes. Things look bleak as Lengyel and Dawson struggle to patch together a team and teach them enough plays in time for the beginning of the 1971 season. Can the new “Young Thundering Herd” shine in the memory of those lost or will their season tarnish the legend of the original Thundering Herd?
We Are Marshall is based on the true story of the tragedy that befell the Marshall University football team and the resurrection of the university’s football program in spite of the odds against them. When the movie was released on December 22, 2008, the holiday season was in full swing and my hectic schedule did not allow me the opportunity to see it. Wandering around Hollywood Video, I happened to spy the movie on the shelf and just had to rent it.
Obviously, there is a great deal of emotion that goes into the making of a movie based on a real life tragedy. You don’t want to make a movie that doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation. You don’t want to downplay the pain felt by all those involved, yet you don’t want to lose people by making such a somber movie that is so somber it fails to draw viewers. The creators of We Are Marshall were extremely sensitive to both aspects while creating this movie. Thus, the film contains both somber moments as the families, players and fans mourn the loss of the people who died in that fateful plane crash, and uplifting moments as the football program is rebuilt from the ground up as tribute to those lost.
Matthew McConaughey is perfect as the quirky but intense Coach Jack Lengyel, a man charged with the responsibility of rebuilding a football program torn asunder by fate. Matthew Fox is entirely believable as Red Dawson, one coach who did not ride back to Huntington on the plane and thus, escaped a horrific fate. Fox’s portrayal of a man struggling with survivor’s guilt and torn between walking away and creating a tribute to the original Thundering Herd and its head coach Rick Tolley was extremely touching. Having just watched David Strathairn in my favorite baseball movie, A League of Their Own, I was happy to see him here, portraying the Marshall University President. Funny to see him playing the role of someone who has little knowledge of sports in this movie, a huge contrast to the roles I’ve seen him play in the past.
Terrific performances were put in by all of the actors in the movie, but one performance stood out from the rest. Anthony Mackie has been acting for several years now and even played the role of Papa Doc in the movie 8 Mile. However, no role in his past can ever stand out more than that of Nate Ruffin, defensive back and co-captain of the Thundering Herd prior to the crash. Ruffin was suffering from a shoulder injury on the day of the crash and did not join the team in North Carolina on that fateful day. Finding himself one of the few surviving members of the team, he is unable to accept that the football program is to be suspended in the wake of the crash and organizes a rally to keep the program going. The role of Nate Ruffin is very dramatic. Stoic and fiercely proud, yet suffering great pain, this is a man who was obsessed with paying tribute to his teammates – his family. Anthony Mackie’s performance as Nate Ruffin was nothing less than amazing. The acting performance he turned out for this role made you actually believe you were seeing the real Nate Ruffin in those scenes. I found myself wondering – who is this actor and why haven’t I seen more of him. Kudos to Mackie for a stellar performance.
The soundtrack of We Are Marshall perfectly complements the movie and the era in which the movie takes place. Songs like Peace Train by Cat Stevens, Lookin’ Out My Back Door by Creedence Clearwater Revival, If You Could Read My Mind by Gordon Lightfoot, The Love You Save by the Jackson 5 and more transported you perfectly back into the 70s…well, at least it did that for me. I can’t attest to the songs having the same effect on folks who never lived through that era. One thing I know for sure, as soon as the movie was over, I was itching to buy the movie’s soundtrack.
Now, of course, We Are Marshall is only based on the events that took place in Huntington, West Virginia in the early 1970s. There are some differences in the movie version. However, these differences are minor and take nothing away from the powerful theme of the movie. By the end of the movie, you will be so invested in the story and in the film’s characters that you will find yourself cheering the Young Thundering Herd on as they struggle to bring the fans of Marshall University a victory in their first home appearance. I thought it was a nice touch to include snapshots of the real team members in the closing credits. I must say that the casting department did a decent job matching up the actors to the players.
In closing, I can honestly say that We Are Marshall is a definite must see for any movie fan, but if you are a sports fan, you’d have to be insane to pass this one up.