I knew nothing of the tragic plane crash that took the lives of so many Marshall University student-athletes and community members when I entered the college as a freshman in 1983. I was five years old when it occurred, and I simply don't recall hearing the story until I moved to Huntington that summer.
There was something unique and special about the community, though. That much was obvious. I attended football games where the team lost--and lost, and lost again each year--but the fans were faithful. Incredibly close-knit, like family.
I simply didn't understand it.
Football is about winning, isn't it? And Marshall wasn't. Why did the fans keep coming back each week, and how could they be so accepting of something-less-than mediocre?
Years later--it probably took me too long to figure it out, actually--I realized that this is something that victims of grief and trauma do in order to heal. Remember. And participate. Become actively involved, and turn mourning into production. Turn trauma into inspiration.
And do it with family. A sense of community is vital for healing.
It was with that sentiment that I expected McG and the cast of We Are Marshall to struggle when making this film. How does a director--especially an outsider, who never experienced that level of grief-- translate a highly subjective, emotional experience onto a tangible screen in a way that each movie-goer can experience it?
It was an overwhelming chore, I thought, and not one I truly expected could be successful.
But it was.
McG uses each character as a metaphor for the community and university, and how both struggled immediately after the tragedy. Marshall University's President Dedmon, played wonderfully by David Strathairn, is timid, insecure and uncomfortable with anything but the status quo. Coach Red Dawson-- in whom actor Matthew Fox seems to have found a soul-mate-- struggles with communicating emotions, and ridding himself of the responsibility he feels in causing the deaths of so many people. Kate Mara's Annie Cantrell can't overcome the guilt she has from wanting her life to move on after her fiance dies in the crash. And Paul Griffin, the character played by Ian McShane, just wants all the pain to go away. He tries to end his grief by quietly working to abolish the football program so he can stop being reminded of his son, who was The Herd's quarterback.
And then there's Coach Lengyel.
Matthew McConaughey's crazy-like-a-fox Lengyel seems to have a paternal nature that nearly compels him to go hard after the Marshall coaching job. The film never says it, but one gets the sense Lengyel was (or, maybe is) the sort of guy who is always evolving as a person. The reflective type who learns more about himself than others when teaching. That guy who is always pushing himself to be a better human being.
The film is successful in making the viewer connect these characteristics to the university, and to the town. The community suffered pervasive grief, and struggled daily with anger, hostility and confusion. Like these characters, Huntington evolved. Because it persevered, it healed. Like the blue collar workers that made up its citizens, Huntington showed up day after day.
And after the fog of grief lifted, it was a better community because of how it handled the trauma.
We Are Marshall isn't a perfect film. There are some filming techniques that were sort of dizzying to watch, and I wish it had been a tad more serious in tone (the comedic aspects were funny, I just didn't expect so many). But there was so much right about this flick--the performances were inspired, the emotional aspect of the film was evident and the soundtrack was successful in helping set different moods and emotions throughout.
And for the locals, it was nice to see Huntington on the screen. McG said in interviews that the town is as much a character in this movie as the cast. He's right, and it deserved it's spotlight too.