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.