1971 season for the Marshall Thundering Herd football team. A remarkable story, one that was turned into one of the most underrated sports movies around, 2006's We Are Marshall.
It's November 14, 1970 and the Marshall football team has just lost a late-season game to East Carolina. Flying back to campus in Huntington, the plane crashes just a mile short of the runway, killing all 75 people on-board including the coaching staff and most of the team. It is a tragedy that rocks the campus and college town, leaving the administration to decide if the next football season should be suspended. Following raucous, loyal support from the fans, Marshall decides to go forward with the upcoming season, hiring a little-known but energetic coach, Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), to build the program up from nothing. With just a trio of players remaining from the team, Lengyel has his work cut out for him as one barrier and roadblock after another awaits. As Jack says though, sometimes it's more than just about winning. It's about giving it your all.
What a crazy, incredible true story. Director McG turns in a gem, an excellent sports story that hits all the right notes. It's difficult watching this in 2016 without thinking "How would a tragic incident like this play out in '16?" Like so many other sports movies tend to do, 'Marshall' actually does a good job of sticking to the truth, to the real-life people and events that developed following the plane crash. Maybe some smaller, quieter moments are tweaked and twisted, but the history and guts of the story are spot-on. That really appeals to me because McG and Co. aren't pandering to the audience for emotional responses. It's a heartfelt story about how the people, the students, the families, the football players coped with such a horrific. life-taking incident.
This is an interesting leading part for star Matthew McConaughey, featuring some of the best of his work. He plays Jack Lengyel, a coach who takes on the gargantuan task of starting a program from the ground-up with just three returning players, no coaching staff and lingering doubts about if they should do this. McConaughey brings a ton of energy to the part, and that's what Marshall needs. Quirky, funny, and very real, it is an excellent performance. He's taking on this difficult job for all the right reasons, which we see in a couple of the movie's most effective scenes. In the football scenes, he throws himself into the action with reckless abandon and it shows, adding something necessary to the proceedings. This isn't a part that will go down as one of McConaughey's best, but I certainly think it should. He's rarely been better.
Watching the new coach arrive, we see how he interacts with so many different people in so many different ways. In a movie featuring several very strong performances, Matthew Fox is a scene-stealer as Red Dawson, a coach who was supposed to be on the doomed plane but changed plans last second. Now, he's dealing with horrific amounts of survivor's guilt. His scenes with McConaughey are heart-breaking, funny, and like two brothers getting to know each other. Next up, Anthony Mackie (a favorite here) as Nate Ruffin, a star player who wasn't on the plane and now feels he must start up the team again as if it is his calling. He pushes and pushes himself through injury and the pain of losing his teammates. And last but not least, David Strathairn as Marshall President Donald Dedmon, tasked with making the decision to not suspend the football team and then back Jack in his crazy plan to get the team going again. Three excellent supporting parts.
Because this isn't a movie just about football, also look for Ian McShane as the father of one of the players who died in the accident. His son was engaged to a cheerleader, Annie (Kate Mara), who similarly struggles with what to do in the wake of the crash. January Jones and Kimberly Williams-Paisley have thankless roles as the coaches' wives.
Running 131-minutes, 'Marshall' covers a ton of ground with a lot of characters, but things never feel too rushed. We go from the crash to the aftermath to the coaching hire to building the team, practice through the first two games. The football -- from the practices to the games -- has a great energy, especially the movie's last game as Marshall looks to do the impossible. The soundtrack? A drum-heavy college marching band playing as the different plays develop, drumming in step with the on-screen action. It's a cool, stylish moment that anyone who's ever been to a college sport event with a marching band will definitely appreciate. The soundtrack itself is heavy with some classic 1970's rock, adding another welcome, nostalgic layer to the story.
A gem, one that as I read some critics' reviews, I see I may be on an island with my love of 'Marshall'! I'm a sucker for sports movies across the board, but this one is really, really good. Highly recommended.
We Are Marshall (2006): *** 1/2 /****