Matthew McConaughey stars in an emotional film that dramatizes the true story of how a football team helped a West Virginia university town rise from tragedy three decades ago. Alan Silverman has a look at "We Are Marshall."
The time is 1971, the place is Huntington, West Virginia, home of Marshall University. Just a year earlier, a chartered plane packed with almost every member of the school's football team, the entire coaching staff and many local supporters crashed while landing, killing everyone on board. The entire town grieved for the loss and Marshall officials decided it would be too painful to continue the school's football program; but that was before the handful of players who were not on that plane stepped forward.
From the meeting room windows they could see thousands of students standing silently to protest the decision; and then the silence gave way to the cheer that had echoed from the stands during games of the 'Thundering Herd' team:
We Are Marshall tells how an unorthodox coach, Jack Lengyel, built a new 'Thundering Herd' and, in the process helped the town honor those lost in the tragic crash.
Much of the film was shot on location in Huntington, West Virginia and Matthew McConaughey, who stars as Jack Lengyel, says - like his character 35 years earlier - the production had a struggle to win local support.
"They were basically saying 'Here you are, coming down to put a mirror on a time in our lives which is not enjoyable for this town to look back to ...either me or my father or someone else went through it ...I lost a father or an aunt or something in that crash and here you are coming down to shine a light on it.' But, after a couple of weeks, the townspeople would come to the set, we would show them script pages and they would see how we were working the scenes ...and they began to trust us and we became like a teammate. That was, not a turning point, but a really nice rhythm that happened early in the film: they saw that we were bringing justice to the story," he says.
Anthony Mackie plays Nate Ruffin, a varsity team member who was not on the ill-fated plane because an injury kept him sidelined. Ruffin becomes a keystone of the re-born 'Thundering Herd' and Mackie believes shooting the film in the place where the real events occurred helped him and the whole cast find the story's true emotions.
"Because I connected so much with the surrounding area and the character, it was hard for me not to become emotional; so a lot of the movie it was me fighting emotion instead of trying to rev up emotion," says Mackie.
The director is McG, whose previous work ranges from music videos to popcorn hits like Charlie's Angels. He says he knew from the start that this film would be different and required honesty in the portrayals of the characters and the events.
"Every single element of the story we told is true. We didn't have to say 'based on' or 'inspired by.' This is a true story and I wanted to keep Hollywood out of it, to the best of my ability. I just wanted the story to speak for itself. It is a story that belongs to the citizens of Huntington, West Virginia and I didn't want ugly Hollywood coming in and messing up; and I certainly didn't want any of my old habits coming in either, because this picture, for me, is 180 degrees removed from anything I've ever been affiliated with. This felt like a great story and I really wanted to stay out of the way of it and let the fundamentally compelling nature of the story rise to the top," he says.
Although most of the characters in the film are drawn from real people, English actor Ian McShane plays a composite: the father of a young player who died in the crash, meant to personify the lingering grief that pervaded the town of Huntington. We Are Marshall also features Matthew Fox as Red Dawson, a coach who gave up his seat on the plane to a colleague and then overcomes survivor guilt to help create the new team. David Strathairn plays Marshall University president Donald Dedmon. Many of the extras who fill the stands for the re-created football games are from Huntington families whose lives were touched by the 1970 tragedy.