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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

We Are Marshall (review)

Off the Field

Look, they are Marshall, okay? They are Marshall. They are Marshall. They are the town that was revived by a 37-yard field goal, okay? They have experienced the healing power of the pigskin and the gridiron, praise be. They have been lit by the light of, well, Friday night lights.

I don’t mean to diminish the genuine hell that the real people of Huntington, West Virginia, surely went through in the aftermath of the November 1970 plane crash outside town that killed almost the entire football team of local Marshall University, as well as most of their coaches and dozens of fans and boosters. My god, this was like their own personal 9/11, an indescribably devastating blow to a small town. But calling anything “indescribable” is like throwing down a gauntlet that Hollywood can’t help but pick up: of course real people’s real pain can be turned, yet again, into trite, glossy cinematic junk food. How could we possibly doubt this?
And so we have Matthew McConaughey (Failure to Launch, Sahara), who uses wild-eyed clownishness as a substitute for acting, as Jack Lengyel, the outsider coach who comes in to take over Marshall’s football program after the disaster, much to the consternation of some. Like Red Dawson (Matthew Fox, from TV’s Lost), the sole surviving coach, who escaped death through the good deed of giving up his seat on the team’s charter plane and is now haunted by his dumb luck. Like Paul Griffen (Ian McShane: Nine Lives, Agent Cody Banks), a member of the university board of directors and a father blinded by grief over the loss of his son, the team’s star player… and the handsomest, natch, and the one who was secretly going to run away to California with his fiancée, pretty Annie (Kate Mara: Brokeback Mountain). *sigh* It’s hard to imagine a cast of characters that could be depicted in a more clichéd manner. Perhaps if there were a player-survivor from the dead team who pushed himself to play through injury on the new team in order to honor his lost teammates… but wait, that’s Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie: Million Dollar Baby, The Manchurian Candidate).

Those are the few characters with names worth mentioning — most of the townsfolk, whether they support the relaunching of Marshall’s football program or not, and most of the new members of the reconstituted team — are an undifferentiated mass of faces about whom we known nothing. How do any of the new players feel about stepping into the shoes of dead superstars, who were apparently the sole salve for the unrelenting horror of living in a small steel-mining town? What did the townspeople occupy themselves with in the months without football, if, apparently, their lives are so unrelentingly awful that only football is worth living for? We have no idea… and of course the suggestion that this town had nothing but football as a crutch is ridiculous. All indication of the complexity of real people suffering in an actual, unendurable way is absent here, as is all indication of a living, vital community struggling to right itself after a horrible blow.

But football will save everyone’s souls, no matter how much talk about “rising from the ashes” and “grabbing glory” and “having heart” and thumping of his chest Matthew McConaughey has to engage in to convince them of that. McConaughey is, alas, perfectly paired with director McG — who deserves a smack for making us call him that, never mind for the horrors he wrought with his Charlie’s Angels movies: he loves hitting us over the head with “symbols” of the town’s pain and recovery. Oh, the metaphoric splendor of the memorial case of beer that one surviving buddy of the team refuses to open in honor of his dearly departed pals. Oh, the bizarre image of David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck., Twisted) as the university president who travels to Kansas City to lobby the NCAA to allow Marshall to use previously forbidden freshmen players — he is required to stand in the rain, waiting for someone to exit the hallowed halls of the NCAA so he can prostrate himself before these guardians of the sport… and then he arrives back in West Virginia, the next day and hundreds and hundreds of miles away, and he’s still sopping wet.

That’s very noble, I suppose, but it makes no damn sense at all, except as a sledgehammer, in case the audience wasn’t getting the full impact of the nightmare of rebuilding a university team from scratch, and the suffering of those who tried to do it. And perhaps it works, accidentally, as a metaphor for the movie as a whole: it’s all wet, and it never dries out.

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MPAA: rated PG for emotional thematic material, a crash scene, and mild language

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
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  • MU Alum

    Whoever wrote this review must be a city person. Otherwise he/she would know that most small towns have one thing that holds them together. Huntington’s just happens to be Marshall U Football.

  • MaryAnn

    It’s not about whether small towns have one thing that holds them together and that city people can’t (supposedly) understand that. It’s about how that is depicted in the film. And it is not depicted well. Not at all.

    Have you seen the film, MU Alum?

  • Film lover

    This was written by MaryAnn Johanson, who “drinks too much wine”, according to her biographical blurb. Perhaps she should stay sober through another viewing of this truly remarkable film. This film isn’t “based on a true story”…it IS a true story. When taken into account and not glossed over, that fact makes this film work on a tremendous number of levels. It is well executed, and if anything, AVOIDS the cliche ridden flick it could have been. I’m sure, as Ms. Johanson claims, that the town was NOT “revived by a 37 yard field goal”, and have NOT yet (26 years later) experienced “the healing power of the pigskin”. I’m sure the town’s still suffering, and will continue to do so. This film, telling not the football team’s story, or even the university’s story, but Huntington, West Virginia’s story, may well be the first step in helping it heal. SEE THE FILM…it won’t be easily forgotten; at least not as easily forgotten as Ms. Johanson’s review.

  • Film lover

    Oh, and yes MaryAnn, I HAVE seen the film. The entire circumstance surrounding the tragedy and the town’s reaction to it were EXCEPTIONALLY well depicted in the film I saw.

  • MaryAnn

    I’m sure, as Ms. Johanson claims, that the town was NOT “revived by a 37 yard field goal”, and have NOT yet (26 years later) experienced “the healing power of the pigskin”. I’m sure the town’s still suffering, and will continue to do so.

    I’m sure the town is still suffering, too. I don’t claim the town was revived by a 37-yard field goal… it’s THE MOVIE that suggests this.

    This film isn’t “based on a true story”…it IS a true story.

    No, actually, “based on” would be more accurate. One of the major characters (the one played by Ian McShane) is a composite, for instance. This is not a documentary — it is a dramatic interpretation of a real story. And I take exception to the way it is interpreted. Hell, all you need to do is watch the sports movies released in 2006 alone — never mind the hundreds of others over the history of cinema — to see how cliched it is. There’s nothing “EXCEPTIONAL” about the film.

  • AgentTofu

    Love it, love it, LOVE IT when people try to shovel crap upon the masses, all while talking down to them about their “big city ways”. Ugh. They couldn’t sell crap to a fly, and can’t even bother to even pretend they saw the flick.

    Thanks MaryAnn, nevermind these jokers. There is a real sports movie out this weekend, and it belongs in one of those “big cities”.

  • Film lover

    Here’s a nice link to some people who, unlike MaryAnn, know of thwta they speak:

    http://movies.msn.com/Movies/movie.aspx?m=2066365&stab=1

  • MaryAnn

    I don’t know of what I speak? I don’t know my own opinion, my own reaction to a film?

    I never understand these people who see bias in opinions they disagree with, but nothing but fact and objectiveness in opinions they agree with.

  • Tony

    Here’s possibly the most compelling review of them all:

    http://www.boxofficemojo.com/reviews/?id=2223&p=.htm

    Sorry, MaryAnn, to be using your review as a forum to spotlight more accurate reviews, but your review and follow-up remarks are most irresponsible. Possibly the most misleading is your remark that this is only based on a true story. I agree there’s a small amount of embellishment, but it’s 95% true, from the actual crash, to the recruitment of players, to the visit to WVU; I could go on and on. I’ve seen the documentaries, such as “From Ashes to Glory” and the hour-long documentary special run on A&E, and other than for a slight bit of alteration for the purpose of entertainment, this may be the closest real life to movie adaptation since “Passion of the Christ”.

  • MaryAnn

    this may be the closest real life to movie adaptation since “Passion of the Christ”.

    Oh, you’re joking, surely? *Passion of the Christ,* close to real life? Oh, my sides hurt from laughter.

    I agree there’s a small amount of embellishment, but it’s 95% true

    The percentage of truth versus fiction is not the issue — it’s the way the “truth” is presented. For you to call my opinion of that presentation “irresponsible” does nothing but demonstrate your own lack of appreciation for the difference between decrying the way a fact is presented and denying the fact itself. I do not deny the facts of the story, as I make perfectly plain in the second paragraph of my review — you know, the one that starts “I don’t mean to diminish the genuine hell that the real people of Huntington, West Virginia, surely went through…”

    Anyone with an ounce of reading comprehension should be able to understand my objections to this film, whether you agree with them or not. But there are worlds of difference between understanding that someone’s opinion of an interpretation of reality differs from your own, and condeming someone as “irresponsible” for holding such an opinion.

  • AgentTofu

    You know what else is fun to look at on BoxOfficeMojo? The weekend results, where Marshall got slammed. Way to open you sports movie on the same weekend as a Rocky Flick WB. I’m almost convinced your trolling blogs at this point, trying to thump for the PotC crowds. Disgusting.

  • Dorothy Petty

    I live in W.Va., not far from Huntington
    W.Va. I remember the plane crash, the loss of
    flight crew, Marshall football players,
    coaches, & respected members of the Huntington
    community.For the Parents, Brothers, Sisters
    & Children whosed Loved Ones perished that
    November 14, 1970, I am truly sorry for
    Your Loss. I saw the movie, “We are Marshall”,
    I thought it was beautifully done, it was not
    Hollywood style. I am glad that Marshall
    University continued their football program,
    I can imagine for the young football players,
    & community it was hard,but it honored the ones
    that perished. But when we lose someone, we
    have to keep going to Live.

  • MaryAnn

    Oh, but it was Hollywood style, with an extra serving of Hollywood sauce on the side.

  • PAT MURPHY

    Three adult members of my family just saw this movie. We all loved it…in fact, when the movie ended people in the theater applauded, which I have not seen happen at the end of a movie for decades. Whether it was “Hollywood” or not, it was a fun, good movie full of sorrow and laughter. I highly recommend it.

  • WE ARE..MARSHALL

    WE ARE MARSHALL, WE ARE HUNTINGTON, WE ARE WV AND WE ARE PROUD! And apparently you are a critic with your head up your derier. If it were not, then you would know Huntington doesn’t have “steel mines” or coal mines for that matter. LOL LOL

    Here in Huntington we laugh at your ignorance. Where did you get that a 37 yd field goal “revived” this town? How dare you try to trivialize our tragedy by thinking that a field goal would or even could do that. This community isn’t healed, we cope. And it’s taken years just to learn to cope. It was never portrayed like that in the movie. The movies point was to continue on thru tragedy, not to quit. Trot over to the Jets stadium and ask Chad Pennington about it, he’ll tell you the same thing. Yes, he’s a Marshall graduate.

    I could care less about your opinion of the movie. Like the old saying goes, “opinions are like buttholes, everyone has one and it usually stinks”. My problem with you is that you apparently don’t do research and post incorrect information. If you put something in writing, you should take the time to make sure you know what your writing about. One last thing…

    “ACTUALLY”, it is a TRUE story…Sorry but it’s true. TRUE, TRUE, TRUE….Nit pick all you want about composite characters. Do you even know the meaning of composite character? Several people of a similar type in one character…..Duh! This does not change the fact that 75 people died that night, that a college had to rebuild thier football program, that they did win in the final seconds of the 1st home game, 28 children WERE left ORPHANED and I could go on and on ……Shall I? Why bother, ignorance is ignorance no matter how you look at it or where YOU live. There is nothing “cliche” in this movie, this is how it is here, we care about one another, we speak to one another on the street, we help when someone needs help, we don’t turn our heads away. We Are Marshall, We Are Huntington, We Are WV and We Are Proud.

  • MaryAnn

    Where did you get that a 37 yd field goal “revived” this town?

    From the movie, sweetheart.

    How dare you try to trivialize our tragedy by thinking that a field goal would or even could do that.

    I think your ire is better directed at the movie. You might want to work on your reading comprehension: I am criticizing the movie for trivializing the disaster. Just so this is perfectly clear: I am not the one trivializing a disaster. The movie is.

    I could care less about your opinion of the movie.

    Hmm. Then why would you read my review?

    There is nothing “cliche” in this movie

    As you say, opinions are like “buttholes”…

  • WE ARE…MARSHALL

    I’m not your sweet heart. And no, you didn’t get it from the movie, it’s not there..I’ve lived it, and I’ve watched it and it’s just not there. No one said it, no one says it, and no one assumes it, except you.

    My reading comprehension is fine. You may want to work on your writing and research skills. And have those eyes checked too, Apparently you can’t see what’s really happening. By the way…you can’t mine steel, you can mine ore, but you can NOT mine for steel. You may want to go back to school and learn a little more before you decide to continue with this as your career choice. Marshall is an excellent University.

    Unfortunately, someone sent me a link to your ficticous review for a laugh, because you’re the biggest joke in this area right now. LOL

    Lady you’re the “cliche” with an extra scoop of stupid. You want to slam me with a remark, don’t throw mine back at me, be original, ie come up with one on your own.

    Dead superstars??????? Tell me where that was in the movie….These so called “dead superstars” (trivializing) were football players that lost thier young lives way too soon. 6 of these “superstars” were so badly burned, their bodies were never identified. Another thing that you needed to do research on before opening that big MOUTH of yours. If you had done research, you would have known this was not a superstar team that lost thier lives.

    You wonder what the “townsfolk” did without football, since the season was almost over anyway, we had basketball. By spring Coach Lengyel was here and we had football once again. How would we ever go on living without it.. Really stupid to think that…. Let me tell you what we did, since your thick head can’t possibly comprehend what NORMAL people do after something like this. We had 75 severely burned bodies to identify, then we had 75 funerals, then 75 burials and then we had to find homes for the orphans, settle estates of the dead, find new doctors, lawyers, city councilmen, university board of govenors and on and on and on. Then Thanksgiving, then Christmas and New Years. That’s what we did. This all just didn’t miraculously fix itself on its own.

    Hollywood gave the surviving families of the crash, the respect they deserve and you want to call that trivializing… That’s called RESPECT. Surely to God you don’t need me to explain that to you too. These are facts, not opionions. Facts, something one should check before putting it on the internet as gospel. It is quite obvious that you went into this movie with your eyes wide shut and your mind narrowed. Grow up Gen Xer, think before inserting that foot into your big mouth. You do have to answer for the things you say, write and do.

    WE ARE MARSHALL, WE ARE HUNTINGTON, WE ARE WV AND WE ARE PROUD!

  • MaryAnn

    I’m not your sweet heart.

    But you were so nice to me!

    And no, you didn’t get it from the movie, it’s not there..I’ve lived it,

    Ah, this suggests that you brought some biases with you into the theater. You might want to look into that.

    you can’t mine steel, you can mine ore, but you can NOT mine for steel.

    And this changes the substance of my review how…?

    Unfortunately, someone sent me a link to your ficticous review

    I can assure you that my review is real — it isn’t fictitious. Nor is it ficticous.

    you’re the biggest joke in this area right now. LOL

    Awesome! I’m world famous in West Virginia!

    Lady you’re the “cliche” with an extra scoop of stupid. You want to slam me with a remark, don’t throw mine back at me, be original, ie come up with one on your own.

    I did come up with a “remark” of my own. It’s the review you’re commenting on.

  • WE ARE….MARSHALL

    If all you have is to point out my spelling errors, then please know…. you do not use a preposition at the end of a sentence. Proof read. I don’t claim to be a writer. You do. Proof read and research, very important in your career.

    (you can’t mine steel, you can mine ore, but you can NOT mine for steel. And this changes the substance of my review how…?)

    There is no substance in a review that is not factual. I gave you a little more education on mining. When writing about real people and real places accuracy of the pen is very important. The Sago diaster will be in the making soon, and you’ll need to know that was a “coal mine”. So when you pick it apart, you’ll have that much right.

    I have no bias, you have things written that are not true and that are no where in the movie. It was/is ficticious, because you aren’t reviewing what was in the movie you’re making it up as you go. Oh lets say you have 5% truth in your review, you did get the actors right.

    Embellishing again? I never said WV, I said this area. Please don’t assume that an area refers to an entire state. You, famous here? Oh my sides are splitting from the laughter, thought I would use one of yours. Your not famous, your a joke. Big difference!

    Again, I don’t care about your opinion, I don’t care if you liked or disliked the movie. My problem with you is that this review is not factual. You pull things out of the air, that just are NOT in the movie. Dedmon was not “still” sopping wet when returning to Marshall. And believe it or not, it is possible to drive “hundreds and hundreds of miles”to Kansas City and back in two days. “Actually” it can be done in less than 24 hours. We do have cars, don’t use the horses much anymore since we got roads. He is not forced to stand in the rain, he waited in a car. You can hear a car door shut, he holds a paper over his head and he removes the paper(newspaper, I would hate for you to assume it was a sheet of paper or a paper towel)as he walks up to the president of the NCAA. No where in the movie does it say, or make anyone ASSUME(except you), that a 37 yd field goal, before halftime, made this town whole once again. A touch down won the game not a field goal. So if you wanted to assume that a play on the football field heals a town in this movie, that’s the one to use, it would still be wrong, but the one to use. And again no where, no where in the movie does it say that Huntington is a “steel mining” town…NO WHERE! And I’m sure if I take your advise and work on my comprehension, I’ll be able to further pick your ficticious review apart.

  • MaryAnn

    I guess if a movie doesn’t come right out and flat out “say” something, it’s not there, huh? Things like context and mood and such have no place in watching film, appreciating film, or commenting on film.

    My bad.

    (I’ve frequently suspected that many, many people have no appreciation for or understanding of subtext.)

  • WE ARE…MARSHALL

    “I guess if a movie doesn’t come right out and flat out “say” something, it’s not there, huh? Things like context and mood and such have no place in watching film, appreciating film, or commenting on film.”

    Probably not, when dealing with a true story. Also accurately describing a scene is important when writing a review. Which you fail to do. I never said that context and mood had no place in film. However, what you wrote was never implied in this movie.

    Oh people appreciate subtext if it’s there. But to pull something out of thin air and say it’s fact, is embellishment.

    Thanks for the discussion..it’s been real….
    Ya’ll take care now, ya hear……..

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