At the start of We Are Marshall, a pleasant, young woman’s voice introduces Huntington, West Virginia, home of Marshall University. There’s the river, Annie (Kate Mara) points out, and the steel mill and oh yes, there’s the school. At the center of the campus stands a fountain, which, she reports, is turned off on the date of the plane crash. “Once every year,” she says, as the camera looks down on the sort-of plant-shaped Memorial Student Center Fountain, “Throughout the town, throughout the school, time stands still.” So does the water.
We Are Marshall begins with this evocation of the 14 November 1970 tragedy and ends in triumph. Though it begins with the words, “This is a true story,” McG’s movie is decidedly fictionalized. The neat trajectory from the crash to an uplifting climactic game, for instance, isn’t exactly how the story went. While this reshaping doesn’t matter much to the film viewer looking to be uplifted by another sports saga, it does raise a question—however fleetingly—concerning the appropriation of “true stories” for entertainment. As related “news” stories rotating on CNN and ESPN this week suggest, opinions concerning the movie and concurrent publicity are mixed in Huntington. For some folks, it’s still “too soon,” 35 years later. For others, the commercial process offers yet another means to “remember” and so honor the dead team.
The film manages this complex range of feelings with a series of hackneyed characters, plot turns, and montages. Lots of montages. The crash occurs almost immediately, so you don’t feel much attachment to anyone on board the plane. The number of bodies—often repeated in the movie—is 75, consisting of nearly every player, as well as coaches and boosters who regularly traveled to away games. That the town’s population feels so closely attached to a university team is an intriguing idea We Are Marshall never addresses. Love of the team within this West Virginia community is a given.
As your point of entry, Annie first appears in the movie as the superduper cheerleader, dating the superduper running back. They exchange sweet looks across the field during the Thundering Herd’s last game in North Carolina. They kiss at the airport, as he boards The Plane and she and her fellow cheerleaders drive home to Huntingdon. She wonders whether he’ll finally tell his father, Paul (Ian McShane), about their plans to move to California after graduation. She gazes up at the night sky as a plane engine drones on the soundtrack.
You’d think with this set up that Annie’s experience would be complex and sustained in We Are Marshall, but no. This is a men’s story.
The devastation is established quickly: firemen tromp through the crash site, with trees on fire and bits of fuselage in the background, their faces streaked with black and tears. They shake their heads. Next, the funerals: a montage of the church interiors, a coffin draped with a football jersey, a portrait of a dead coach. At the stadium, the community gathers, dressed in black, to hear a speech over the PA system. Annie’s voiceover adds helpfully, “The sun rose and the sun set, but the shadows remained.” The camera pans gravestones. “What once was whole now was shattered.”
The primary example of this shattering is the surviving coach. Though he was scheduled to be on the flight, Red (Matthew Fox with dyed hair) did his assistant a favor, sending him home on the plane and taking the more tedious route home, driving the company car so he can make a recruiting stop. Horrified that his decision led to the assistant’s death, Red arrives home, hugs his wife (January Jones, who has maybe two lines in the film), and gags when he sees his photo in the newspaper, along with all the dead folks. Overcome by his survivor’s guilt, Red promptly quits football and retreats to a manly diversion—putting a roof on a structure on his lawn.
Red assumes, along with everyone else, that the university will disband or at least suspend the program. But then, according to the movie, some surviving team members (injured that weekend, and so, not at the game) ask to reinstate the program. These include the charismatic defensive back Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie, too old to be this character), who rallies what looks like the entire student population to stand outside a Board of Visitors’ meeting and chant, “We are Marshall!”
Well, what can he do? University president Don Dedmon accedes to their demand (and in the role, David Strathairn brings some welcome moderation to the mostly overwrought proceedings—at least until he’s called on to approach an NCAA official in the pouring rain, looking pathetic and hopeful and frankly silly). Though his decision is questioned by Paul, a construction worker who tends to appear in his hard hat and coveralls with a fiery furnace behind him, Don takes the students at their word, believing that another team—led by Nate (characterized by his determination and his relentless slang: “It ain’t right!”) and a couple of other upper classmen—will help the school and town come to terms with their loss and find new purpose.
His first order of business, as directed by young Nate, is to find a new coach. Red won’t take the job, and neither will any of the Marshall alumni he calls (montage: pencil crossing off names on a list). Just when all hope seems lost (because that’s the way the timing goes in such narrative exercises), Jack (Matthew McConaughey) calls. He’s a solid family man, with a funny way of talkin’ out the side of his mouth and an adoring wife, Sandy (Kimberly Williams-Paisley, who has four or five lines), plus kids. When Don asks just why he wants this job that no one else will take, Jack looks uncomfortable before he gets sincere: he’s a football coach, that’s what he does. And besides, he imagined the community’s overwhelming sadness. “I thought,” he says, “‘Hell, maybe I can help.’” Don, again, accedes.
Once he convinces Red to take the assistant coaching job, Jack provides a kind of yin to his yang. Enthusiastic and mostly ignorant of the dead team’s legacy, he offers aw-shucks aphorisms and cryptic stories about changing diapers for the first time. He also convinces Don to petition the NCAA to allow Marshall to play freshmen, to be recruited with the promise of playing time, in order to begin the process of rebuilding. This means the new team is comprised mainly of inexperienced players. Multiple montages later—practices, beer-drinking, crying, and other bonding exercises, charts on blackboards—Jack’s squad takes the field against their first opponents (who look much larger than they do).
Convincing players and staff that winning doesn’t matter this year—just “laying out” their hearts on the field is enough—Jack doesn’t exactly rebuild the program (the team doesn’t have another winning season until 1984, after which they had 21 in a row, including a couple of Division I-AA championships and seven bowl games). But he does get We Are Marshall to a climactic game.