We Are (sort of) Marshall

Rick Tolley: Sure didn't look 50.
Rick Tolley: Sure didn’t look 50.

We had a lazy afternoon with the kids yesterday, which meant back-to-back family movies in front of the TV. The weather was crappy, a guest had recently left, everyone’s been running around, blah, blah, blah. It was needed.

I’m enjoying my kids at ages 8 and 11, because we’re not longer limited to films about talking squirrels and princesses. If (gasp!) a curse escapes from someone’s lips, it’s not the big deal of yesteryear. There are actual plots and nuances. Sometimes people die. It’s all good.

Anyhow, the first flick of the afternoon was The Truman Show—which my kids really liked (and I love). The follow-up was narrowed down to either Blind Side or We Are Marshall. I really disliked Blind Side, and hadn’t seen Marshall since it’d come out nine years ago. So I pushed for that one, and won.

Bad call.

We Are Marshall is, in and of itself, a bad sports movie. No cliche is missed, no conversation is one any human would have, no emotional moment isn’t milked like a 5,654-utter cow. It’s a paint-by-number piece of crap; not Paul Blart-bad (translation: a film that predictably sucks, as it should), but terrible in the way you feel after seeing your favorite superstar ballplayer strike out in a big spot against some journeyman righty who can’t hit 85 on the radar. Profound, sincere disappointment.

All that said, what drops We Are Marshall from awful to the depths of hell is a ridiculous, blind devotion to heart-stirring narrative over truth and historic accountability. In case you don’t know, the film is the “true” story of the 1970 Marshall University football team and the nightmarish plane crash that killed nearly all of the players and coaches. This is, unambiguously, a fantastic subject for a movie. I mean, the heartbreak. The emotional turmoil. The return of the football program. It’s all right there.

And yet McG, the (arrogantly nicknamed) director, clearly made the decision that truth matters not. It’s hard to count the number of fabrications and inaccuracies in this film, so here are some of the biggies …

1. There was no fight between the school and the NCAA for Marshall to be allowed to use freshman during the 1971 season. Like, this battle did not exist. The players died, Marshall decided to continue to play, the school asked the NCAA for the OK and it was immediately granted. Which wouldn’t be a big deal except Marshall begging for freshmen to play is a HUGE PART OF THE FILM.

2. Marshall had an athletic director, and he hired Jack Lengyel, the new coach. He knew him from previous work, and it was a relatively short search. Which wouldn’t be a big deal except the coaching search—conducted under McG’s watch by the college president (we’re told repeatedly the school has no AD), is a HUGE PART OF THE FILM.

3. The head coach of Marshall who died in the crash was named Rick Tolley. He was a young guy—only 30 and in his second season at the helm. In the film, he was played by Robert Patrick—who was almost 50. Perhaps you think, “Eh, not a big deal.” But, to me, it’s a huge deal. Tolley died. As in, he no longer exists. He was the coach of the Marshall football team. An important man with a legacy. And you, McG, decided, “Eh, young coach doesn’t work with my narrative. Because the guy taking over (Lengyel, played by Matthew McConaughey) is also young, and the juxtaposition is better if it’s a young guy replacing a veteran. So … let’s make Tolley an old guy.” Translation: The truth of the situation isn’t as important as the narrative flow. Which is understandable—save for the fact your character is named Rick Tolley, and he really existed, and he died tragically.

4. McConaughey played Lengyel as sort of a wacky goofball; this mix of Joe Maddon and Pee Wee Herman. And it’s fun and funky and enjoyable. But, according to interviews with peers, the real man was NOTHING like that. He was quiet and straight-laced and disciplined. Again, I get narrative. But when you’re talking about real people, and you name your characters after real people, and the only similarity between your character and the man who existed is, eh, a name, well, you’ve got problems.

5. The plane crash is a gigantic moment in the film. Only it didn’t happen the way it’s depicted. Wait, there’s one similarity: A plane crashed. But the entire town didn’t run to the scene; a fireman didn’t prove the accident involved the team by uncovering a Marshall playbook. On and on and on. Fabricated.

6. The famous school chant, “We! Are! Marshall!” is uttered about 100 times. Great, wonderful, fun. Only, in 1971, it had yet to exist. Glub.

Look, I understand the adaptation of a real-life event to film is complicated. Jack and Rose weren’t actually on the Titanic. In Remember the Titans, Gary Bertier wasn’t talking about the Special Olympics a day after learning he’d never walk again. Liberties are taken, exaggerations are made.

Sometimes, however, stretching the truth isn’t merely stretching the truth.

It’s bastardizing history.

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