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We Are Marshall Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 December 2007

Image “We Are Marshall” is an emotion-driven blockbuster that twists and turns like a runaway rollercoaster. As you get hooked into the story, propelled by the acting, the story, and the musical score, you’re going to be dragged through pain and loss and uplifted to glorious victory that is the stuff of enduring myths.

In 1971, Marshall University of West Virginia suffered a tragic loss of 75 townspeople in a plane crash. Thirty-seven of them were college players; others were coaches, parents, supporters, and sports announcers. With the town depleted of athletes, family, and friends, the Marshall University football program had to start all over from scratch, bend rules, and drive themselves harder than anyone had ever been asked since the inception of the program.

David Strathairn plays university president Donald Dedmon, who was a real person, but uninvolved in rebuilding of the program. As it turns out, there are as many events changed to make the movie more interesting as there was in straight adoption of the material. Strathairn plays Dedmon with his characteristic flair and understatement that won me over in a heartbeat. Although he doesn’t show a lot of emotion throughout the movie, you can just feel it roll off of him in waves. I love watching him work, and he does of his best performances ever as an uncertain college president who was supposed to just be a temporary stand-in and became a pivotal player in getting the program back on its feet.

Ian McShane stars as Paul Griffen, one of the players’ parents and a local businessman who’s on the school board (which also pretty much didn’t exist or take as much interest in the doings of the college). McShane’s performance is heartbreaking. He’s buried his wife and his son, and he has no one left. His arguments against bringing the football team back together make a lot of sense. The thing that bothered me most about his character, even though it all makes sense and was set up according to the script, was that he didn’t go to that first home game. Since the movie buried the needle with melodrama regarding reality anyway, that would have been a good scene. Matthew Fox (“Lost”) plays Red Dawson, the assistant coach of the team. I’ve always thought he was a pretty good actor, but this film brings out his best. When he cried, I cried, and I knew I was being bullied into it by the movie. But his pain was so palpable you couldn’t ignore it. The events regarding his changing seats on the plane wasn’t true, though. The real Dawson was on a recruiting trip and was driving back from the beginning.

Robert Patrick’s brief few moments as head coach Rick Tolley was uncredited, but he was the epitome of every coach I’ve known at that level. When he was onstage, he owned the screen.

Kate Mara didn’t fare as well as she should have in this film. The scenes that she was in required her to be sad, maudlin, and mopey. She never really changes at all, just reacts to everything going on around her.

Anthony Mackie as Nate Ruffin, a player that was sidelined with an injury at the time of the crash, zoomed onto center stage almost immediately. His run from the theater to flag down a passing vehicle (another thing that didn’t happen because the plane had actually been down for a half-hour before anyone found it) had you rooting for him from the beginning. Then the confrontation he staged with the school board’s meeting about disbanding the football program to show them the students gathered outside the window (something else that didn’t happen and was there only because it made good film) made me think he was going to have a bigger role toward the end of the movie than he did. Nate didn’t completely go away, but after the program started rolling again, he just wasn’t as necessary. Mackie should have a good career ahead of him, though. He’s easy to watch and sells a character completely.

Matthew McConaughey as Coach Jack Lengyel is amazing, though. Every time McConaughey took the stage, my eye naturally fell on him. McConaughey underplays the role to a degree, but his acting is strictly old school method rendering. Jack Lengyel, even in the newspaper reports and the interview sections in the special features on the DVD, just never comes across as passionately driven or off-the-wall as McConaughey’s version. I loved McConaughey’s interpretation of the man, the speech patterns, the disjointed thinking, and the way he had of looking into the far distance as if he was focused on something a long way off while meandering through a monologue that really had a point. Physically and emotionally he nails the role – even though it wasn’t exactly what was going on.

I grew up in a small town, so the small town aspects of the movie really touched me. I think they’ll do the same to anyone who grew up in those areas where the town identifies itself with its athletic records and gridiron heroes. More than that, I live in Oklahoma. In 2001, Oklahoma State University had a similar loss when a plane with nine players, personnel, and television sports director Bill Teegins went down. I remember how that tragedy affected everyone in the state. There’s a resonance of loss in “We Are Marshall” that will probably be there for nearly everyone.

The film moves through the story at an accelerating pace. Although not all the struggles in the movie were actually undergone by the real people at the time, it’s easy to buy into how hard everything must have been to get the program up and going again. The search for teammates was awesome, and I was heartened with every one they added to the roster.

The musical score kicks butt in this film, too. Christophe Beck picked a host of songs that play to each and every scene, amping up the emotion for the viewer. You can’t help but tap your toes when the beat gets on a rampage, and you’ll be drawn into the story and the character arcs during the soft songs that wring all the angst and sympathy from you. The music actually provides a way to shortcut through a lot of background and filler material.

McG’s direction is spot-on for the material he was given to work with in the script. He has an idea for the characters Corey Helms and Jamie Linden created, and he knew the values and heart of the town he wanted to reveal in the movie. McG moves easily from the small one-on-one scenes to the large filled-to-capacity crowds of the stadium games.

The video presentation in High Def is absolutely amazing. The screen is clear and the colors are bright. The opening advertisement for the natural beauty of West Virginia, provided by many of the movie’s main stars, is breath-taking. The bridge spanning the deep valley over a lush forest and river gave me a sense of vertigo the first time I saw it. That experience didn’t get much easier with a second viewing.

The audio portion of the movie is likewise impressive. The conversations, from screaming matches to soft-voiced pleading and consoling, are pitch-perfect and clear. The meaty sounds of the bodies making contact on the field make you feel like you’re standing right in the middle of the action. The music streams through unbelievably well. Not only that, but the mix on all of it will make anyone who has a surround sound system glad they made that purchase.

The special features on the DVD are a little weak. Although interesting and tying in with the overall theme of the movie, the section on the legendary coaches would have been better left for something else. I wanted more information about Marshall. Then I read about the $40 million lawsuit against the film company. Evidently the producers of the documentary “Marshall University: From Ashes to Glory”, Deborah Novak and John Witek, feel that the movie related too closely to their material.

“We Are Marshall” is an excellent film for family night, as long as the kids are old enough to deal with the c losses depicted. The story of restoration, of not giving up in the face of adversity, of doing something hard now so that people who follow will find the way easier, is one that we’ve all grown up on. This film is one of the best to provide that lesson in a long time. Anyone who loved “Rudy” or “Brian’s Song” is going to love this one.

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