By Abel Keogh — It’s hard to find a movie that effectively deals with the subject of grief. Occasionally however, there’s one that really deals with the subject in a realistic way. The most recent movie that does an excellent job dealing with the subject is We Are Marshall.
We Are Marshall is about the tragic plane crash that killed the players and coaches of Marshall University in 1970. Though it’s hyped as a sports movie and the difficult task of rebuilding a college football team from scratch, We Are Marshall is really a movie about dealing with death and loss and how individuals and communities cope with the loss of loved ones. It’s a movie about those who choose to move on and those who want to let the past hold them back.
And the desire to be held back by some sense of mourning is tempting. The university considers canceling the football program but only the quick thinking of one of the surviving football players convinces the board of trustees to let the football program continue.
Then there’s Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), the only member of the coaching staff who wasn’t on the plane because he opted to drive home and make a recruiting stop on the way. He’s wracked by survivor’s guilt, the loss of his mentor Marshall’s head coach Rick Tolley (an un-credited roll by Robert Patrick) – and the fact that he personally recruited many of the players who died after promising their mothers he’d watch after them while they were on the team.
After the program is reinstated, Dawson is offered the head coach job. He turns it down and spends his time building a shed in his back yard. Returning to football – a game that he loves – is something he doesn’t have the heart or strength to do.
Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) takes the job that no coach in the country wants: building a football team from scratch in the shadow of dead players and coaches. Not only does he have to field a team, he has to help Dawson (who finally agrees to be an assistant coach for one final year) and the university president, other players, and members of the community to know that the best way to accept their loss and climb out from under the shadow of the dead is to play football.
In one emotional scene following the blowout loss to Morehead State, Dawson tells Lengyel that they aren’t honoring the dead because he thinks the team is playing poorly and losing. Lengyel fires back that the Marshall football program isn’t about winning right now but healing the community and the individuals who are still mourning over loved ones. He tells Dawson that building a football program, even one that’s only marginally successful is about giving the people a chance to rebuild their lives. He tells Dawson:
One day, not today, not tomorrow, not this season, probably not next season either but one day, you and I are gonna wake up and suddenly we’re gonna be like every other team in every other sport where winning is everything and nothing else matters. And when that day comes, well that’s…that’s when we’ll honor them [the dead players and coaches].
In another scene, the morning before Marshall’s home opener against Xavier, Lengyel takes his team to the resting spot of six unidentified players. He gives them an inspiring speech about the dead players and coaches but at the end proclaims, “The funerals end today!”?
His message is clear: stop living in and thinking about the past. Instead start doing what you were put on Earth to do and start living again.
Despite the dark and sad feeling that penetrates the movie, we see how players, individuals, and the community cope with the loss of spouses, friends, and loved ones and begin moving on with their lives.
There’s an unopened case of beer that was to be used to console the players before 1970 teams’ win before the fateful crash, sitting untouched until a new player opens a can and is joined by others. We see the fianc? of one of the dead players take the advice of the should-have-been father-in-law and leave Hunington, West Virginia to move on with her life and not be held back by the past. And we see how the community celebrates the re-built team’s surprising victory against Xavier by staying on the field for hours after the game. Not everyone makes the decision to move on, however, and we see how their decisions to be held back by grief and memories contrast with those who move forward.
Losing a loved one can be difficult and We Are Marshall portrays that agony in very heart wrenching scenes. But it contains a message of hope and shows how an individual and community can move on after the tragic death of a loved one – even many loved ones – and become stronger in the process.