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Movie Review: "We Are Marshall"

It is something that I imagine the friends and family members of every college and pro sports team worry about each and every time those teams travel:

What if their plane crashes?

This is exactly what happened on November 14, 1970, to the Marshall University football team, returning from a loss at East Carolina. The entire team (save a handful who stayed home and become important to the program's revival), the coaching staff, and many prominent members of the community where Marshall is located -- Huntington, West Virginia -- all died in the crash, 75 people in all.

"We Are Marshall" isn't about the crash itself, although it is shown briefly as the movie begins, and in one of the most effective ways I've ever seen -- you never see the actual crash, and what you do see is reflected more in the eyes of the people waiting for the plane to arrive, friends and relatives getting phone calls, rushing to the site of the crash, which you see only fleetingly, and flames in the distance; it makes you think and feel of the pain of the loss that the people and the community are suffering.

At the time Marshall was what we'd now call a "mid-major" program (it's now much bigger than that, and in recent years has sent players like Randy Moss and Byron Leftwich to the NFL), and the first instinct of the school's president Donald Dedmon (played understatedly by the excellent David Strathairn) is to cancel the program, pushed by university board member and prominent local citizen Paul Griffen (Ian McShane), who has also lost his son, a star running back, in the crash. Dedmon is a real person; "Griffen" is a composite character.

But four players from the team have survived, because they were left behind for various reasons, including injury, and one, defensive back Nate Ruffin (newcomer Anthony Mackie), helps to organize the entire university to show the board that they should keep the program alive.

So Dedmon heads off to try to find a new coach, and after going through an entire list of coaches who turn him down, finally gets a call from the coach of a small college in Ohio -- Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) who "wants to help".

It seems corny, and if this were fiction you'd probably walk out of the film scoffing, but since you know this is all a true story, you find the somewhat hokey sincerity of Lengyel refreshing. Remember, this is an era when athletes at this level of college sports are, still, more or less actually student-athletes, and McConaughey is so earnest in believing he can put together a team of walk-ons, players dragged from other sports, and freshmen recruited for the first time (if you don't know, at that time true freshmen were ineligible to play varsity sports, and it took a personal visit from Dedmon to NCAA headquarters in Kansas City to get a waiver for Marshall to do so, although I had to laugh because the scene in which you see this is the second one in the film in which you wonder why people don't remember to bring umbrellas in pouring rainstorms).

I won't spoil the rest, only will tell you that as is fairly standard in movies such as this, there is a climactic scene of triumph on the field at which you'd shake your head in disbelief if you didn't know it was a true story (the actual play that is shown is slightly different from reality, but not the result, or the effect on the community). For their part, the people of Huntington who saw a preview of the film didn't seem to mind that; almost all gave it big thumbs-up. Among the other true-to-life scenes is one where Lengyel and Dawson go to West Virginia University, whose team was then coached by Bobby Bowden, to try to get some help from him in creating a playbook to use. Bowden, still coaching at Florida State, has his own recollection of those times:

What the movie does not mention is that Bowden was offered the Marshall job two years before the crash and could have been on that plane. [Screenwriter Jamie] Linden said he purposely omitted that because he felt people would not have believed such a coincidence.

"I was the offensive coordinator at West Virginia and I wanted a job at a bigger school," said Bowden, who also turned down Louisville that same year. "They were not the powers they are now."

Rick Tolley eventually was named Marshall's coach.

"That's the first thing I thought, 'What if I had taken that job? I would have been on that plane,' " Bowden said. "It makes you think about why you make some of the decisions you do."

In addition to McConaughey, McShane and Strathairn, other excellent performances are given by Matthew Fox as assistant coach Red Dawson, who had terrible survivor's guilt from missing the flight to go on a recruiting trip, and Kate Mara as Annie Cantrell, who is a cheerleader and fiancee of Chris Griffen. There are some very affecting scenes with her and McShane, and Mara has a family connection to football herself -- she is the great-granddaughter of Tim Mara, founder of the NFL's New York Giants.

If you don't squeeze out a tear or two by the end of this movie, you don't have a heart. Wonderfully done, one of the best sports movies I've seen, but it's not just a sports movie, either. Don't miss it.

(Today's Top 100 will be posted later.)