At least in movies, sports are almost always about redemption, community, and triumph. Sports — like movies — provide a controlled world with boundaries within which we can work through issues that seem insurmountably complex outside the chalk lines on the field or the edges of the movie sceen. In this movie, based on a true story, a community shattered by a devastating loss finds a way, through football, to begin to heal, and to find some meaning, not in the tragedy but in the way they respond to it.
In Huntington, West Virginia, Marshall University’s school and the community join together to cheer the football team. One night in 1970, following an away game, 75 players and coaching staff were killed in an airplane crash. Everyone in Huntington knew the players and their families. The grief was so enormous, the loss so senseless that they are numb, hopeless, shell-shocked. Cancelling the football program seems like the only option.
Those who were not on the plane must struggle not just with the teammates they lost but with their own sense of survivor guilt. Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), the one coach who was not on the plane because he had a recruiting appointment, cannot face the fact that 20 of the boys on the plane were ones he brought into the program, assuring each of their parents that he would look out for them. A player who missed the game because he overslept cannot understand why a mistake like that should have saved his life. He cannot bear to suit up and enter the field without his teammates.
But Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), who had been kept home with an injury, knows that the tribute to the lost team that would make the most difference is to keep the program going. And Wooster Ohio coach Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) calls to say that he thinks he can help. With some help from the NCAA, which bends the rules to let freshmen play, some players brought in from other sports, and some montages of 70’s songs and fall foliage/scrimmage scenes, we’re ready for game day.
Ready to play, that is, not necessarily ready to win. But for this team, playing is winning enough.
McConaughey seems to be channeling Columbo as he tries to prove he is not just a movie star but an actor. He hunches over and talks out of the side of his mouth, but the performance is as much about the hair — a bad comb-over — as about his delivery.
The movie falters when it goes in too many directions. Its strongest section is the story about the rebuilding of the team and what it means to the school. But its power dissipates by spreading over too many characters without grounding us enough in their stories, relying too much on signifiers of loss and moving on that are too familiar.
Parents should know that this film is about devastating losses. There is some sports violence, some drinking, and some strong language. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of loyalty, respect, and friendship between diverse characters.
Families who see this movie should talk about what each of the main characters found most difficult and what each of them found most meaningful. Why was rebuilding the team so important to the school? What does that tell us about the role sports plays in our lives?
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Remember the Titans.