TMN Sports Movie Review: "We Are Marshall"

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A 2006 docudrama chronicling the aftermath of a plane crash that killed 37 football players on the Marshall University football team as well as a majority of the coaches and fans it was carrying in 1970. After students rally to convince the board of governors to play the 1971 season, outsider Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) is brought in as the new head coach. Along with the 18 surviving players and numerous walk-ons, he works to keep Marshall's football program alive.
3.5

Rating: PG
Length: 131 minutes
Release Date: December 22, 2006
Directed by: McG
Genre: Drama / Sport

"We Are Marshall" is a 2006 film based on one of the most tragic events to occur in American sports history. In 1970, nearly the entire Marshall University football team and both coaches were killed in a plane crash. The following spring, what is left of the team must rally behind a new coach in an attempt to hold the football program of the West Virginia school together. Nate Ruffin, a young player who was supposed to be on the plane at the time of the fatal crash, becomes the team leader and must find it within himself to keep playing. Nate is one of the team's only strong players left since he missed the flight due to an illness, and he suddenly finds himself playing the role of captain and coach.

When Marshall University president Don Dedman hires a new coach, Jack Lengyel is the obvious choice for the job. The coach known for his winning streaks and ruthless on-field tactics recruits local players to replace those lost on the original Marshall team. Not only are the original players left to work through the tragedy, but also to find a way to cooperate with the new players who are generally faster, stronger and more experienced than they are. Lengyel has the sobering task of bringing the two teams together into one and leading them to victory.

As the film progresses, the drama mounts both on and off the field. Coach Lengyel petitions the NCAA for permission to let the freshman team enter the championships for the first time in history. The stakes are as high as the tensions within the team, and the road to the NCAA proves to be a long and winding one. Things eventually start looking up, and it seems that the Marshall football team may have the chance to bring some light back to its home town. Much to the surprise of the coach, he begins to question his own motivations in leading the team to national acclaim. In fact, he starts to question the Lombardi creed itself, which holds that winning is the only thing that matters. This philosophy has been his moral guide throughout his career, but his time with the Thundering Herd makes him question the meaning of it all.

"We Are Marshall" is more than just another football movie. The love of the game, complex team dynamics and the rush to victory are all present, but so are undertones of sadness, loss and grief. Released in 2006, the film gave a sense of closure to many residents of Huntington, West Virginia. In addition to the football players and coaches, many others lost friends and family members in the fatal plane crash. In the small and rural town of Huntington, so accurately portrayed in the film, football was one of the few things the local population could rally around. The movie captures how the revival of the Thundering Herd meant more to the local community than just media attention and prestige. The driving message behind "We Are Marshall" is that sports can be used as a way to unify a community and pay homage to the lost while looking forward to the future.

The acting in "We Are Marshall" is pitch perfect, especially in the performances of Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Mackie and Matthew Fox. Mackie does a brilliant job in his portrayal of Ruffin, a young and talented football player struggling to keep his team together. Ruffin's story is a relatable one, particularly as he attempts to take on the mantle of leader while grieving the loss of his friends. His acceptance of Lengyel's leadership does not come easy as the rest of the team members struggle with the idea that their friends and former coaches are being replaced. Amid the athletic drama, there is also a side story about the father and fiancée of a deceased player who must find a way to move on with their lives.

"We Are Marshall" is a dramatic sports film that audiences will not soon forget. From start to finish, this is an incredibly gritty story of raw emotion and basic human psychology. The story perfectly illustrates how sports can be used as a positive, uniting force for communities, even in times of great tragedy. There are also plenty of lessons about letting go, even when holding on seems like the less painful option. Even in its darkest moments, "We Are Marshall" never loses its underlying message of hope and redemption, which proves to be the greatest victory the Thundering Herd could achieve.