Based on a real-life tragedy, this film deemphasizes sports-movies cliches in favor of a larger and more resonant story about a community finding its feet after tragedy. On November 14, 1970, Marshall University's football team, the Thundering Herd, was returning from an away game in North Carolina, accompanied by its coaching staff, stadium announcer and two dozen prominent local supporters. The plane crashed, killing everyone and devastating not only the college, but the entire city of Huntington, West Virginia.
University officials decide to suspend the football program on the grounds that playing — assuming the school could quickly cobble together a team and staff, which seems profoundly unlikely — would be an affront to the dead and salt in the wounds of the bereaved. But a handful of players, led by Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) — who was home nursing a serious shoulder injury at the time of the crash — make an impassioned plea for the program's resumption. The school eventually finds a coach — Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), who has more than a little of the used-car salesman about him — willing to take on the position of athletic director. He in turn lures assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) — who gave up his seat on the doomed flight — back onto the field. After losing dozens of potential recruits to rival West Virginia University, Dawson and Lengyel employ unorthodox recruiting strategies to secure enough students to constitute a team, and persuade university president Donald Dedmon to petition the supervisory NCAA for a waiver allowing freshmen to play. As Lengyel slowly molds his recruits into a team, "We are Marshall," the Thundering Herd's traditional rallying cry, takes on a larger meaning, uniting newcomers and survivors, families, students and even competitors — the WVU Mountaineers play an entire season with small crosses on their helmets in remembrance of the Marshall team.
CHARLIE'S ANGELS director Joseph McGinty Nichol (aka McG) shows surprising restraint with this emotionally freighted material, weighting the movie heavily towards relationships. And while the great contradiction of most sports movies is that they preach good sportsmanship while celebrating victory (the original ROCKY was a striking exception), he sticks to the less-than-fairy-tale truth: Lengyel's new Thundering Herd, filled with newcomers capable of mastering only rudimentary plays, didn't miraculously coalesce into a mean machine. But they played. The film benefits from a strong cast; McConaughey's Lengyel is eccentric but ultimately engaging, while David Strathairn and Ian McShane, as Dedmon and a grief-stricken father, respectively, deliver subtly powerful performances. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh