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We Are Marshall
Coach Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) holds a football aloft while giving a pep talk to the young Thundering Herd in "We Are Marshall." (AP photo/Warner Bros. Pictures/Frank Masi)

There are sports pictures, then there are movies that are set in the world of athletics that transcend sport.

“We Are Marshall” is one of the latter.

The story of how the small West Virginia university and the town of Huntington recovered from the 1970 plane crash that killed 37 Marshall football players, eight coaches and university staff and 25 prominent local citizens, “We Are Marshall” isn’t so much about winning and losing as it is about the way sports can represent the heart and soul of a community and how a tragedy can be overcome.

While there are some composite characters, “We Are Marshall” is, by and large, accurate to what happened in the aftermath of the crash, which opens the picture. Devastated by the tragedy, the university’s board is ready to eliminate the football program forever, an idea pushed by Paul Griffen (Ian McShane), a powerful local industrialist who lost his son, one of the team’s star players, in the crash.

But Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), who was left home from the game in North Carolina because of injury, isn’t going to let his team go without a fight. Powered by survivors guilt and a sense that those who died in the crash wouldn’t want to see the sport disappear from campus, Ruffin organizes a demonstration outside the campus building where the board is meeting — thousands of students and townspeople chanting “We are Marshall” convince the board to keep football alive.

That, however, puts Marshall president Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) in a bind. He has no coach. Surviving assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) doesn’t want to return to the field, and Dedmon is repeatedly turned down by Marshall alums who are coaching elsewhere.

Enter Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), the unorthodox coach at The College of Wooster in Ohio. Seeing news accounts of the crash, Lengyel decides he might be able to help the school and the community and volunteers for the job. But getting the job is just the first step in the healing process, which takes place on and off the field.

Well written by Jamie Linden and convincingly directed by McG (who made “Charlie’s Angels”), “We Are Marshall” is respectful and well researched, benefiting from the presence of Lengyel and Dawson, who served as the film’s technical advisors, and the fact that it was largely filmed in and around Huntington, where the events being depicted took place.

It also benefits from McConaughey’s best performance ever. A sports fan who is constantly on the sidelines at Texas football games, McConaughey spent time talking with Texas coach Mack Brown, former Longhorns coach Daryl Royal and Lengyel, and he becomes the coach — slightly offbeat, often funny, but always with his eye on the goal.

That goal is not to win, but to compete. That alone sets “We Are Marshall” apart from the standard sports film.

Add in the complex portrayal of Dawson by Fox, of TV’s “Lost” — a man who saw 20 kids he recruited die in the crash but feels obligated to help his school and community recover — as well as the pain clearly felt by McShane’s Griffen and the mixed emotions of the surviving players, and you have a powerful, ultimately uplifting drama about remembrance and recovery.

“We Are Marshall” is also notable because it doesn’t wrap everything in teary sentiment. Rather, it tries to tell the story in a straightforward fashion and largely does so. Even the football scenes are lifted as closely as possible from reality, although the real-life Lengyel failed in his attempt to stop a little dramatization of the final play of the second game of the 1971 season.

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If that flourish is the only major Hollywood embellishment of the Marshall story, and it seems to be, then “We Are Marshall” is a true triumph — an inspirational depiction of real events that could only be reproduced through a fictional film that is done as well as possible.

The fact that “We Are Marshall” was made means that the crash and its aftermath will be known to generations who weren’t alive or can’t remember the crash 36 years ago. But more importantly, it shows what sports can mean to and do for a community without worrying about the final numbers on the scoreboard.

Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com.

We Are Marshall

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Director: McG

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, Kate Mara

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

Running Time: 2 hours, 7 minutes

Now Showing:

The Reel Story: This inspirational drama tells the story of the aftermath and recovery from a 1970 plane crash that decimated the Marshall football team and the Huntington W.Va., community.

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