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We Are Marshall: Movie Review

Chris Carpenter


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On the evening of November 14, 1970, a chartered jet carrying Marshall University’s football team, coaches, and key people from the community, was on its way home from a hard fought game in North Carolina. The plane never arrived. Less than one minute before landing, the plane crashed into the Appalachian Mountains, killing all 75 people aboard. Lost forever were players, coaches, family, and friends. Huntington, West Virginia would never be the same.

Thus begins the tragic tale of We Are Marshall, an inspiring new major motion picture opening in theaters today, starring Matthew McCounaughey.  McConaughey portrays Jack Lengyel, a determined young football coach hired to rebuild the tattered remains of a football program that had been wiped out in an instant.  What he doesn’t realize is that his leadership will be instrumental in healing the community.

Set against the gritty backdrop of the Ohio River, Huntington is a town known as much for its blue collar ideals as it is for football.  The rebuilding process was not an easy one as the close-knit community struggled with a highly sensitive dilemma:  honor the dead by suspending Marshall’s football program indefinitely or continue on despite the raw edged grief that was still resonating.

As sports movies go, We Are Marshall stands out for its willingness to step beyond the clearly defined boundaries inherent in such material.  There is no clear villain or rival – if anything the villain is grief.  An underdog cannot be found.  While Marshall certainly can be viewed as such, they were not a great team before the crash or after. The Thundering Herd struggled for nearly two decades before becoming a winning program in the late 1980’s.  Most refreshing is that football serves a secondary role to the town’s quest to regain hope and strength after the tragedy.  There is definitely lots of football action but it takes a backseat to the very human drama that unfolds. 

McConaughey does a credible job portraying Lengyel, appearing to be quite comfortable in his role as a coach, husband, and father of four young children.  However, he comes off as a used car salesman in some scenes.  Effectively complementing McConaughey is the understated Matthew Fox (ABC’s “Lost”), who plays highly conflicted Red Dawson, the lone surviving coach.  Dawson initially wants nothing to do with rebuilding the football program yet eventually agrees to give Lengyel one year to assist in the process.  An interesting side note is that the real life Dawson stayed completely away from football for 35 years before he started attending Marshall games again this past fall.  Apparently, being involved in the making of this movie was a cathartic experience for Dawson.

Anthony Mackie, who is considered one of the best young actors of his generation, turns in a terrific performance as Nate Ruffin, the determined team captain who was highly instrumental in influencing the university to reinstate football after the crash.  You cannot take your eyes off Mackie who lights up the screen.

Where We Are Marshall falls flat is in its underutilization of characters outside the university at large.  Ian McShane does a commendable job as a star player’s father and college trustee who must overcome his grief with the help of his deceased son’s fiancée played by Kate Mara.  But therein lays the problem.  The pair is expected to essentially represent the entire town of Huntington.  It is an unenviable position to be in as clearly there must be other points of view besides this conflicted father and his former future daughter in law.

The film also stumbles in its misuse of poetic license when Lengyel encourages Marshall University president Donald Dedmon (David Straithairn) to travel to Kansas City to directly petition the NCAA to allow the Thundering Herd to play freshman players (freshmen were not allowed to play varsity football in 1971).  Dedmon arrives at NCAA headquarters at night in a driving rainstorm only to find the exact person he needs to see conveniently coming out the front door of the building.  They converse, Dedmon gets an affirmative response, and shows up back in Huntington the next day still soaking wet.  Dramatic?  Yes.  Plausible? No.

Ultimately, We Are Marshall is a likeable film that just tries too hard.  The subject matter is inspiring, sometimes bringing tears to your eyes.  It teaches valuable life lessons on how to cope with devastating loss while overcoming overwhelming odds.  It is a celebration of a community’s dogged pursuit of restoration.  However, it is not as inspiring as it could have been.        

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About The Author


Chris Carpenter is the program director for, the official website of the Christian Broadcasting Network. He also serves as executive producer for myCBN Weekend, an Internet exclusive webcast show seen on In addition to his regular duties, Chris writes extensively for the website. Over the years, he has interviewed many notable entertainers, athletes, and politicians including Oscar winners Matthew McConaughy and Reese Witherspoon, evangelist Franklin Graham, author Max Lucado, Super Bowl winning coach Tony Dungy and former presidential hopefuls Sen. Rick Santorum and Gov. Mike