Apologies for taking so long to post this. I was out of town. My parents were in town. And then, every time I sat down to write this post, I started to cry because this week's movie is We Are Marshall and dammit if you don't cry in the first 20 minutes.
We Are Marshall is the story of what happens after the 1970 Marshall University football team (coaches and fans) died in a plane crash on their way home from a game in North Carolina.
What this movie does right is that it establishes a connection between the viewer and the characters whose fates we already know, making it even more heartbreaking to watch.
I don't want to get ahead of myself. Let's start where we start, at the beginning:
Huntington, West Virginia is a pretty small town. As the movie portrays it, Marshall University is pretty much the keystone of the city and all its residents are more than a little bit invested in the football team.
The players are your average college kids. The guy in the suit is on the football team. He's getting ready to get on the plane back to Marshall so he calls his Freshman roommate who's back at school and tells him to buy them some beer. College!
The guy on the left is the son of one of the town's big shots. I think his dad owns the Steel Mill? His girlfriend is a cheerleader. They're engaged and they're planning to move to California after they graduate. For some reason she narrates the movie, which is really annoying. The actress is Kate Mara, but every time I look at her I see Teen Witch.
Here's where fate is a nasty bitch. The guy on the left is Red Dawson, the guy on the right is another coach, (in real life it's Deke Brackett, I don't know if they name him in the movie). Deke asks Red to switch places with him so Deke can take the plane and get back to WV in time for his granddaughter's piano recital. Red agrees and goes on a recruiting trip (by car). (In reality, it was another coach who switched seats with Deke, but this is why they say "based on a true story" not "this is totally a true story")
So, they switch places. And then this happens:
The crash was so close to the town that people saw the firetrucks going by and followed them to the crash site.
January Jones is playing Red's wife, Carol. She thinks he's on the plane.
But he drives all night so he can show her that, no, he was not on the plane.
The next morning, in the newspaper, he's listed as one of the victims of the crash. This movie has a lot of scenes that are just a few seconds long and make you sigh big and go, "oh shit."
Then there is a montage of a different sort, this montage is of funerals and grief:
I think it is time we discussed Anthony Mackie's presence in this movie.
He is magnificent. He should be in every movie. Always. All the time.
Anthony Mackie is playing Nate Ruffin, one of four surviving players from the varsity football team. He has just gotten word that the school will not play football for the next season because pretty much everyone who had anything to do with the football team died.
But Nate wants to play football so he can honor his teammates and be a part of rebuilding the program.
So he calls some friends.
And he does this.
And everyone starts chanting and this is where one needs to pause the movie because one is crying so hard she needs a whole roll of toilet paper to sop up the blubber face one has developed.
So the Marshall kids win their fight and the school decides to start a new football program. But they need a coach. No one is willing to take the job (because it's a pretty impossible job). Then Matthew McConaughey, playing coach Jack Lengyel, reads about the team in the newspaper and decides he's the man for the job!
This is the Varsity football team. Remember how I said there were four guys? One of them couldn't take the guilt he felt for surviving and couldn't bear to play. Now, I don't know if this is still true, but in 1971, Freshmen couldn't play Varsity football. So unless they managed to recruit 30+ players who were not Freshmen, this was the team. These three guys. That's it.
So many quiet and sad moments in this movie.
The team gets to recruiting and surprise surprise, no one wants to play for a football team without a program.
So Matthew McConaughey does his lean-in acting method and convinces the school's president to go to the NCAA and convince them to make an exception for Marshall so they can let freshmen play (and also have an upper hand in recruiting because they would be the only school to let freshmen play).
The president of the school goes to the NCAA in the rain and pleads his case and IT WORKS!
This shot lasts about 1.4 second and, after Anthony Mackie, it is my favorite thing about the whole movie.
The players of West Virginia University wore these crosses on their helmets in memory of the players who died in the plane crash.
Will you look at that? They've built a team!
Not a very good team, but a team.
Nate Ruffin is upset because he's too hurt to play, but he has to play because he has to honor his teammates.
Jack Lengyel is contemplating his decisions because is the best way to honor those players to have a football team that loses?
The coach takes the players to the memorial for the 1970 Marshall players and he gives a great speech that ends with, "No more funerals!" Because we learn that it is not by winning today, but by building something that over time will become a team just like any other team that will honor the 1970 team. They want to build a lasting program is the thing.
But hey, what do you know.
They win their first home game!!!!!
The coach gives the school's president the game ball because he's the MVP. The president, Donald Dedmon, did a lot to get the program back together. After the team lost that first game so badly he was voted out of his job by the school board of the University. But, as portrayed by David Strathairn, he's a real stand-up guy and one of the heroes of the movie.
They don't say it straight out, but I think this is a picture of the 1970 team.
So, here's the thing. The team before the crash didn't exactly have a winning record (at all) and there was some shit in their past. But that didn't stop the students or the school from rebuilding the program because as coach Jack says, it's not about winning or losing. It's not about how they play the game. It's about playing at all. The goal of starting this new team was to build a program that would continue beyond being a tribute. The tribute would be that they're still playing football.
Well, Marshall goes and creates a pretty darn strong football program. They've won 6 of 9 bowl games and they've had players such as Chad Pennington and Randy Moss go on to the NFL.
What makes this movie so surprising is that it was directed by McG, the same guy who directed this music video. And this music video. And this music video. (Oh, man, remember the 90s?)
Because I missed a week, this weekend is a double-header. Tomorrow: STICK IT.
Anthony Mackie thanks you for your time.