Matthew McConaughey gives a pep talk in "We Are Marshall."
By Barbara Vancheri, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Oh my God in heaven."
That's what the president of Marshall University utters when he sees the burning wreckage of a plane that held football players, coaches, other staffers, fans and the flight crew, 75 souls all told.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, David Strathairn.
Director: McG (real name Joseph McGinty Nichol).
Rating: PG for emotional thematic material, a crash scene and minor language.
The amount of loss one town -- Huntington, W.Va. -- was forced to absorb was unimaginable. Eighteen children, including nine from two families, were orphaned that November 1970 night.
"We Are Marshall" dramatizes the crash, the aftermath, the effort to heal the town and the team and to return to a time when the squad would be like any other, simply looking for another "W" in the win-loss column.
The film opens with brief narration that takes the moviegoer into Huntington, from the Ohio River to the nearby steel mill, the university and a fountain that is turned off once a year. It then spins back to the reason that fountain turns silent.
Marshall's team is returning from a North Carolina game when the plane crashes less than a minute before the scheduled landing.
Among the many people whose lives will never be the same: university president Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn); an assistant coach, Red Dawson (Matthew Fox from "Lost"), who gave up his seat so a doting grandfather could get home earlier; a widower (Ian McShane) whose only child was a star player; his son's sweet fiancee, Annie (Kate Mara); and an outsider, Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), who would take the coaching job no one else wanted.
McConaughey, who not only sports an unflattering 1970s hairstyle and wardrobe but adopts a manner of speaking out of the side of his mouth, makes Lengyel a little kooky but charming and persistent, insisting his team plays "till the whistle blows."
His charisma carries this movie, with support from Strathairn as the president who knows little about sports but is thrust into the internal politics of college football, and Fox, as a man burdened by survivor's guilt and the knowledge that every young player he recruited perished.
If you sit through the credits, you will see pictures of the some of the real-life figures. Some characters, however, are composites, since the movie could not possibly tell 75 individual stories, no matter how compelling.
The most notable are McShane's crusty widower, along with Annie, who is meant to represent all the girls who lost boyfriends, and a varsity player named Tom (Brian Geraghty) who stayed behind and is conflicted about the resurrection of the team. Tom is contrasted with real-life defensive back Nate Ruffin (an excellent Anthony Mackie), who was sidelined at school by an injury.
There is no denying, however, the power of the words that appear on screen at the opening: "This is a true story." When you see the school, the fountain and the cemetery with its communal resting place for six players, it's impossible not to feel teary-eyed.
And that trumps the movie's drawbacks, such as its overbearing use of music, which is the aural equivalent of yanking us along by the ear. Not necessary.
When a key character changes his mind about something monumental, we never learn the reasons. And other than Annie, the women are virtual mannequins with almost no dialogue, which is the opposite of director McG's two "Charlie's Angels" movies.
"We Are Marshall" wasn't written by McG, but by Jamie Linden, and this is his first produced script.
When promoting a movie that revolves around a sport, the cast and crew like to say, "It's not a movie about football or golf or baseball." That is true in this case. It's also not a two-hour tragedy, but a movie with reason to laugh and cheer.
The rallying cry of "We are Marshall!" is about mending a town's shattered heart, not just its offense and defense.
Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632.