Hollywood loves tragedy. It makes for good entertainment. At least the acts of overcoming diversity and personal perseverance in the face of tragedy make for good entertainment. People feel better after seeing others survive misfortune and standing up against the odds. We, as part of human nature, love to know that things get better, no matter how badly the situation may have become. It is commonplace for big studios to invent the stories that make us sad, but deliver redemption and a happy ending. It is less common for a true-to-life story where our thirst for warm and fuzzy emotions. One such story that has taken thirty five years for the Hollywood treatment is that of the tragic November 14, 1970 Southern Airways crash that killed nearly the entire Marshall University football team and much of their support staff with just one game left in the season and four surviving players and one assistant coach to continue the football program.
The Marshall Herd have lost a close game and their coach, Rick Tolley (Robert Patrick) is unhappy with the results and tells his team that they will only be remembered for winning and not the heart they have shown. The players leave the game and begin to load onto the charter jet liner that will take them home. Assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) has decided to let another assistant take his place and to drive back to West Virginia and make a scouting stop on the way. The other assistant would have had to miss his daughter's show and Dawson's sacrifice allowed the assistant the opportunity to watch his daughter, but this act ultimately saved Dawson from the fate that awaited everybody who boarded the plane. For on final approach to the Huntington airport, the plane crashed and thirty seven players, eight members of the coaching staff and training staff, the college's athletics director, twenty-two university boosters and the five crew members lost their lives.
The town of Huntington and the close-knit campus were placed into complete shock by the tragedy. Board member Paul Griffin (Ian McShane) lost his son and has decided to vote to suspend the university's football program. Team captain and one of four remaining varsity players, Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) tells university President Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) that this is a mistake and plans a student march to show support for the program and not vote for a suspension that could lead to a permanent end to the Marshall Herd. The vote does not go through and the college must quickly move to rebuild a staff and find a way to field enough players to have a squad to play. The NCAA prohibits freshman from playing and nearly everybody, including Red Dawson, have turned down the head coaching job. From little known Worcester College, Coach Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) contacts Dedmon and tells him he is interested in the vacant coaching position. Lengyl lands the job, talks Red into joining his staff and sends Dedmon onto a mission to get a waiver from the NCAA to play the team's freshman players.
A number of walk-ons from the university's other sports programs join a number of new recruits who are interested in the opportunity to play as a freshman join the three surviving varsity players who have agreed to continue playing. One of the three, Reggie Oliver (Arlen Escarpeta) is moved from wide receiver to quarterback and is asked to be the team's offensive leader, with Ruffin as the team captain and defensive leader. The new coaching staff has trouble getting the plethora of inexperienced players adapting to the "Strong I" offensive scheme preferred by Lengyel and they adopt a scheme through the support of West Virginia University's Bobby Bowden (Mike Pniewski) and attempt to build a team that will honor the memory of the perished teammates and not disgrace the school. Slowly, the team builds chemistry and starts to behave as a football team.
The first game is a defeat for Marshall and they can only muster six points and are largely embarrassed by their opponents. The players show a lot of heart, but it is not enough to help the little town of Huntington bet over their losses. Red Dawson continues to have troubles getting over the twenty players he recruited and lost on the flight. The players show their lack of experience and have many begin to wonder if having the program continue so soon after the tragedy was the wrong idea. Matters are made worse when Ruffin re-injures the shoulder that kept him from making the trip that caused his friends and teammates to perish and he moves from being the strongest player on the team to being a liability because of the injury to his shoulder. Lengyel needs to track down Red and talk him into returning and Griffin has Dedmon fired from his position as school President.
Lengyel awakens to see the entire town parading on the way to the team's second game and their first home game. He takes the team to the memorial for the perished players and is joined by Red Dawson. He rallies the players with the memories of those that were lost and the six players who were burned too badly to be identified. Lengyel tells the players that if they play with all of their heart, that they cannot be defeated. Regardless of the score on the board at the end of the game, those that give it their all cannot lose. They then take to the field to face Xavier College and are true underdogs in every sense of the word. However, they surprise everybody with a 3-0 lead at halftime after a very long field goal by their former soccer playing kicker. The second half finds the Herd needing a final second touchdown in a situation reminiscent of the last play by the former players. The play succeeds and Reggie Oliver throws the winning touchdown to make Marshall a very surprising 16-15 winner over Xavier and to help Huntington and Marshall heal just a little bit more.
I liked "We Are Marshall" and although the film is not historically accurate and falls prey to many Hollywood conventions that aim to make the film more audience friendly, it is good entertainment. Marshal is depicted as a proud and strong team that was perhaps in the running for a bowl game when they barely lost the game before the fateful flight. Lengyel is even asked about expectations and he simply responds to not wish for a miracle. In reality, Marshall went 3-7 and 3-6 in the previous two seasons. Therefore, his 2-8 record was not far off the mark from what Marshall had done in the previous two seasons. Townsfolk are invented or used solely for the purpose of striking emotions in the audience. The character of Annie Cantrell (Kate Mara) is a very pretty young waitress who was engaged to Paul Griffin's son. The relationship between her and the surviving Griffen is based solely on pain and suffering and does nothing to advance or add to the plot. Their purpose is entirely to show the suffering of the town and bring in young male audiences with a very pretty young actress.
Dawson and Lengyel are also given the Hollywood treatment by bringing in studly actors McConaughey and Fox. The real Red Dawson and Jack Lengyel worked closely with the actors and the filmmakers, but these characters are certainly built to be more audience friendly than their real life counterparts. Not that this is wrong and I approve of both actors and consider them underutilized talents in Hollywood. However, "We Are Marshall" becomes more of a film about the two coaches and the pretty girl and mourning father than it does about the freshman players who work so hard to bring hope to Marshall and rise the program from the ashes. There is football in the film and it is a football film, but so much of this movie focuses solely on the main actors and their trials and tribulations. I didn't mention many of the players names in my review, simply because the film spent such little time with them that I forgot their names by the time the credits rolled. The third surviving player who remained on the team is ignored for almost the entire film. A fourth player survived and was the best friend and roommate of Nate Ruffin, but he cannot play football and is only seen from the sidelines.
After watching "We Are Marshall," I felt that director McG and is actors and staff paid proper homage to the memories of all those who died on Southern Airways Flight 932 on November 14, 1970. The director had previously made films that had no substance and are largely forgettable (the "Charlie's Angels" films for example), but he shows an ability to make a convincing character-driven drama. Fox and McConaughey are both very good in their roles and I especially enjoyed the performances of Anthony Mackie and Arlen Escarpeta. Any movie that includes Ian McShane instantly deserves some recognition. If anybody saw his performance as Al Swearengen in HBO's "Deadwood" can attest, he is a fine character actor. The Hollywood treatment given to "We Are Marshall" is perhaps its only noticeable flaw. It moved too far away from the players and the team and focused on a pretty girl and a pair of groomed and attractive coaches. It's a good film, but a movie that I feel could have been incredible with just a little more focus on the players, especially the four surviving players that didn't make the flight.
The Blu-ray release of "We Are Marshall" looks stunning. The 2.35:1 transfer is nicely mastered with VC-1 encoding and is a rock-solid looking film. McG comes from a music video background and heavily utilizes an "MTV" style of editing and direction. His hand and Director of Photography Shane Hurlbut's work is fine for the film, but colors are stylized throughout the film and often hinder the high definition look of the film. It isn't a flaw of the technology, but a stylistic choice. Some of the football footage is designed to look like old game films. Colors are overblown and desaturated and greens are pushed to the max. Other scenes have a heavy blue tint and introduced grain that keeps those scenes from doing the most with what Blu-ray can offer. When style does not interfere, "We Are Marshall" is incredibly detailed and vividly colored. Shadow detail is strong and one particular scene where McConaughey and Fox are talking in a stadium tunnel shows strong detail in low lighting and the textures of brick look real enough to touch. Black levels are strong. I saw no flaws in either the digital transfer or source materials. When the film is allowed to look good, it looks very good. There are just a few moments where style goes a little too retro.
I am very pleased with the increasing number of Blu-ray (and HD-DVD) titles that are being released with Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound. Granted, Blu-ray also provides the equally pleasing Uncompressed PCM sound option, but Warner Bros. has not embraced that technology. Thankfully, they are starting to release more and more titles with Dolby TrueHD and I am very satisfied with the soundtrack of "We Are Marshall." It is hard to describe what I call ‘depth of sound,' but "We Are Marshall" is one of the best films I've yet to witness with depth of sound. For instance, when Nate Ruffin has assembled the student body and they are chanting "We Are Marshall" and Red Dawson hears the chant at a distance, you can almost believe you are hearing that chant at a distance and that it is not emanating from sound speakers. The football sequences exhibit very lively and enveloping sound. Each hard hit and crunch is nicely captured by the soundtrack. The musical selections sound great and I was nearly sent to purchase "Peace Train" for my Zune after hearing how good it sounded in the film. This is truly a top notch soundtrack. A Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also provided.
I enjoyed the film. I though the visuals were very strong. The soundtrack rocked. Where I found disappointment was in the extras contained on this Blu-ray release. The disc contains only three supplements and none of them pertain to the actual film aside from the Theatrical Trailer. Marshall Now (1:02) is a promotional clip used to advertise Marshall University. I remember seeing these sorts of clips when I was looking into colleges. Chad Pennington is involved in the clip for any New York Jets fans reading this review. Next, Legendary Coaches (36:59) finds Director McG introducing ‘legendary' coaches Jack Lengyel, Bobby Bowden, Pat Summit, Lute Olsen, George Horton and John Wooden. This supplement wasn't bad at all, but it was mostly involved with delving into the personal thoughts, beliefs and experiences of the coaches interviewed. It doesn't look into the Marshall tragedy or this film at all. Although not included on the menu, the Blu-ray did begin with an advertisement from the West Virginia Department of Tourism. It was oddly placed and simply odd for its inclusion.
"We Are Marshall" is a well-acted film that is Hollywood's take on the Marshall University tragedy of 1970. Nearly an entire team was eradicated when their airliner struck trees on final approach. The film moves away from the football and the players and looks more at its coaches and a cute young lady waitressing at a restaurant. It is still a good film, but I wished it had spent more time with the players affected by this tragedy. The Blu-ray release combines some strong visuals and top-notch sound with a weak provision of supplemental materials. First hand accounts from those involved with the rebuilding would have been great. Where did all the freshman go? I know Nate Ruffin died very sadly at a young age, but the other remaining players who helped rebuild would have been fascinating to spend time with. A nice film and a good example of Blu-ray technology, I feel "We Are Marshall" isn't a bad choice to make at the local retailer.