Huntington in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a town just beginning a long, downward spiral that would see a population base of nearly 90,000 in the post-World War II era dwindle to around 50,000 but the turn of the century, with the loss of smoke-stack industries and the jobs that went with them. Marshall football in the late 1960s was also spiraling downward, after some successes in the 1930s and 1940s was followed by a mostly disappointing first membership in the Mid-American Conference and a 27-game non-winning streak from 1966-69.
The two downward spirals intersected on a most horrible night as the Thundering Herd football team returned from a game at East Carolina on November 14, 1970. The crash of the Marshall team plane, killing not only 36 players and five coaches but the leaders of West Virginian's then biggest city is where we join both the town and gown for "We Are Marshall," the movie that chronicles the still worst air-related disaster in American sports history and the attempt to not only restart the football program, but in a larger sense to rebuild the university and the city by those who were left.
In "We Are Marshall," director McG, known better for television fare like "Supernatural" and "The OC," along with two "Charlie's Angels" films and many music videos, captures the plume of despair and disappointment that encircled the city and university during the era of the 1970s. For every step forward by the city or university or football team, it seemed as if there were two steps backwards and never-ending discussion of the best way to make the next change the right change. But in the film, McG also honors the memory of those who were lost on the plane, while minimizing the impact of the crash and the post-crash scene in deference to those surviving family members and teammates of the persons on the Southern Airway plane. It was an event that Marshall made the obligatory monuments and dedications to after the tragedy, then distanced itself from the era as coaching staff after coaching staff was brought in to restart the program up through the mid-1980s.
Not until the past decade has the full impact of the tragedy been examined, not only on the town and football program, but the survivors guilt that many faced in a era where no mental health help existed, like we would see now, and many internalized their feeling for decades before the award-winning video "Ashes To Glory" really started the healing in 2000 on the 30th anniversary of the crash. This film will take that healing further, but don't expect this movie to put a blue ribbon on the win over Xavier and wrap up the film as "all is well." It was a very long decade of football for the Herd in the 1970s, winning only 23 games and losing over 80, the worst record in the nation. Many may not remember or not know that many outside of Huntington were calling for the program to still be done away with nearly a decade after the crash, something Huntingtonians and Marshall alums did not allow to happen even as the town was falling further into debt and despair with the loss of jobs and persons.
The movie opens at ECU, and the Herd loses a close game late behind coach Rick Tolley, a very good if short-lived performance by Robert Patrick as the coach who took a program thrown out of the Mid-American Conference and on NCAA probation and had just began to steer it in the right direction when he, his staff and the bulk of the team were killed just short of the Tri-State Airport coming back from ECU on Nov. 14, 1970.
From there, it becomes a story of those who feel the university must honor the memory of those who died, led by Anthony Mackie as senior defensive back Nate Ruffin in a powerful performance, and those who feel the town and the team need a break from the multiple funerals and loss of leadership, led by a composite character in Ian McShane, the father of a MU star player, MU board member and owner of the steel mill that sits just one block off the Marshall urban campus. Caught in the middle in a very understated performance is David Strathairn, as interim Marshall President Donald Dedmon. Strathairn, an Academy Award nominee for "Good Night, and Good Luck," is very good as the president with no road map to follow for rebuilding his university in the wake of the horrible tragedy and who is, quietly, the hero of the picture for bringing football back when pushed by Ruffin and the student body, much to the chagrin of McShane's character.
Dedmon will try many, many candidates to fill the Marshall head coaching role, including William "Red" Dawson, an assistant coach with the Herd for three years who was recruiting by car and missed the tragic flight. Matthew Fox, of ABC's "Lost," is the anchor of the movie as the coach who cannot come to grips with why he was spared and whether it is right to try to put another team on the field for Marshall. He eventually returns as an assistant coach for new head coach Jack Lengyel, portrayed in an odd turn by Matthew McConaughey. Lengyel, a very down-to-earth individual, was never as quirky as McConaughey makes him but with that said, what McConaughey brings to the role is some light moments following the tragedy of the crash and during the rebuilding of the team that would have made the film too heavy to bear without.
Kate Mara is the cheerleader who lost her fiancé, McShane's son, and is our guide back through the story. Mara is very good in this role as the girl, who like the town and the team, must push on with her life without her husband-to-be at her side. She and McShane keep us grounded in Huntington in the real world, while Fox and McConaughey rebuild the football program with true freshmen, basketball players, baseball players and walk-ons, including kickers and receivers who have to be taught rudimentary football as they put the program together.
Bobby Bowden of WVU is portrayed in a very good light in the film, although the rivalry between the Herd and the Mountaineers featured in the film is more a modern creation than a real issue in 1971. Bowden opens his film room and play books to the Marshall coaches so they can install the Veer offense for the Herd. There is an especially moving moment when two West Virginia player's helmets are seen with a "MU" and a green cross on the back in honor of the players lost at Marshall the season before. We may never see this level of cooperation or respect between the two programs in today's world, but it is a very nice moment in the film after WVU has beaten Marshall for recruit after recruit in the early going for Dawson and Lengyel, before Dedmon wins the right for freshmen to play immediately from the NCAA.
The football action is done very realistically, and the feel of the 1970-era uniforms, helmets, equipment, shoes (Pumas and Spot Bilts are dead on), Wilson TD footballs and coaches in the classic "Bike" coaches shorts and pants and polyester shirts is very good. Marshall's struggles with those who survived and those who were new to the program in 1971 is caught very well in the filming, and that was a constant personal problem for Lengyel in real life: How do you tell the 1971 players that they are now not playing in 1972, ‘73 or '74 because new recruits are better, bigger and faster.
The "Play" for the win against Xavier, "Bootleg 213 Screen," is given a little Hollywood magic, but the inter cutting of sceens from where we have been in the movie to where we are at that moment is well done. The action is on a par with other recent football movies, and former Marshall basketball player Mark Patton, as a basketball walk-on, and former MU linebacker Kevin Atkins as one of three returning players, have some very good moments. Even that win on the last-second play, almost too Hollywood for Hollywood in that first home game after the crash, is toned down, however, when Dawson breaks down in the locker room following the win. The burden of carrying the program for the past year is somewhat lifted from Ruffin by Dawson at halftime, but the same cannot be said for Dawson, who in real life carries many of the emotions played out on the screen with him in every day of his life since that night in 1970.
This film will not heal the wound that was opened 36 years ago, but it will continue the healing for so many that is ongoing within the city of Huntington, nationwide by those who were here then and for the team that is Marshall Football. "We Are Marshall" is a four-star effort for the our area and our team that tells a true story with as little intrusion as possible. It is recommended for fans of great stories on the screen, not just football fans or Thundering Herd boosters. In spite of the successes of the last 15 years, which are profiled briefly at the end of the movie, when football became about winning and losing once again (as they said in the movie), we will never forget and always remember…WE ARE MARSHALL!