Tuesday 18 January 2022

Movie Review: We Are Marshall (2006)

A sports drama, We Are Marshall is an inspirational but also frequently melodramatic rise-from-the-ashes story.

In 1970, a plane crash kills 75 people, including most of the Marshall University football team. The survivors include team captain Nate Ruffin (Anthonie Mackie), who missed the trip due to injury, and coach "Red" Dawson (Matthew Fox), who gave up his seat on the doomed flight at the last minute. The university's community of Huntington, West Virginia, descends into shock, including influential local business leader Paul Griffen (Ian McShane), who lost his son in the crash. 

President Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) considers shutting down the football program, but Ruffin rallies support to rebuild the team. After being turned down by all leading candidates, Dedmon hires Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) as head coach. Lengyel has no prior association with Marshall but plenty of energy, and convinces Red to join him as assistant coach. A frantic recruitment program results in a group of young and untested freshmen and walk-ons being cobbled together into a team to tackle the new season.

An undoubtedly touching story of grief and recovery afforded the full Hollywood treatment, We Are Marshall draws strength from a real-life tragedy giving birth to resilience. Director McG translates Jamie Linden's script into a polished and well-staged narrative, combining the search for meaning with the difficulty of life marching on, regardless. For all the tender emphasis on loss, the film is also unabashedly manipulative, seeking opportunities to pause and deliver rousing moments, motivational speeches, and fists-in-the-air demonstrations of togetherness, always accompanied by requisite musical flourishes.

The focus is on a small group of community members navigating numbness and fury, survivor's guilt, a father's sorrow, and overwhelming helplessness, fuelling different opinions on whether reactivating the football program benefits healing. With Matthew McConaughey in full charm-on mode, coach Lengyel becomes the outside catalyst not personally affected by the tragedy and therefore able to prod the community on the path to recovery. 

But grief this deep lingers, and to the film's credit, not all the characters are eager to join the rebirth process. While the overblown climax casts a long shadow, thankfully the journeys of grieving dad Paul Griffen and diner server Annie (Kate Mara), who was engaged to Paul's son, end on a more wistful note away from sports heroics. David Strathairn adds eloquent touches of hesitant humanity as the university president with no playbook on how to navigate a mammoth tragedy.

A gesture of respect by a rival school's football team asserts the unifying power of sport, and the on-field scenes are well-staged, capturing the grit, agony, and ecstasy of college football. We Are Marshall knows where the goal is, and despite bombastic tendencies, registers an assured victory.

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