The film baldly claims to be "a true story." Now, as I explained in the conversation, whenever I see a film that trumpets its own truthfulness, in particular a purportedly "inspirational" film, my hackles go up. I've seen how directors mangle and abuse history, distorting events for their own ends--I'm talking to you, Walt Disney, and your mousy minions--and I immediately wonder just how true the film is, both to the tragedy and its victims. Will the truth really be enough to inspire, or does the director have to cheat, to gloss over the facts, to falsely color scenes?
At first blush, the film struck me as overripe. Banal dialogue, a syrupy score, endless mugging for the camera by Matthew McConaughey, and, worst of all, a ridiculous ball-in-flight montage, insultingly recapping the film's most "moving" scenes: all these overshadowed solid performances by Ian McShane and Anthony Mackie, the film's moral loci. (Both played characters who carried the weight of tragedy, and movingly so.)
When a screenwriter and director collaborate to bring a story to the screen, changes from the true account are not only inevitable, but necessary for the sake of time and art. Some of the discrepancies between "actual fact" and the film presentation are excusable.
External circumstances require some omissions. One real-life member of the Thundering Herd, Felix Jordan, never contacted the filmmakers, so his character was written out and his actions ascribed to Nate Ruffin.
Watching the film, Jordan saw his No. 21 jersey on a player during the re-enactment of the 1971 Marshall-Xavier University game. He says he's not surprised that Ruffin, who died in 2001, gets credit for things Jordan says he did, such as calling defensive signals on the field. The film is "about 40 percent accurate," he says.Jordan isn't perturbed about the change, granting that "That's Hollywood. I know they had to make it entertaining."
The needs of narrative structure and limited time often cause multiple characters to be compressed into one; for example, McShane's father figure is a composite, as is his son's surviving fiance. No harm, no foul.
Marshall also suppresses facts in order to heighten the drama. The NCAA is made out to be a cold, rule-obsessed organization, requiring a cross-country trip by a rain-drenched President Desmond to soften their hearts so Marshall can start freshmen and have a team again. Fact is, Marshall's program, pre-crash, had been cited for 140 NCAA rule violations, and kicked out of the Mid-American Conference. (A previous coach had been fired for violations. Marshall's previous successes on the gridiron weren't exactly "storied.")
Perhaps indefensible, though, is the utterly fictive scene that precipitates the governing board's approval of the football program's revival. Ruffin leads a band of frat boys, cheerleaders and nerds--practically the whole campus--to stand outside the administration building, chanting "We Are... Marshall!" in the film's centerpiece. The camera shifts from the crowd to the board, horns swell, and movie goes into inspirational overdrive.
It never happened.
While "We are ... Marshall" is famous in Huntington, and now has the potential to be known throughout the nation, the chant was not used in 1970 or 1971.Sure, it's appropriate in a rah-rah spirit of the film--but it's completely fabricated. Maybe I'm just cranky, and maybe my beef is stringy and overcooked. Or maybe McG, the not-exactly-auteur, made the same mistake of many others before: embellished, dressed up, warmed over the truth because of the false impression that the truth isn't true enough.
"The 'We are ... Marshall' chant was never a part of our game," [former head coach] Lengyel said. "It came later, but it's very appropriate for the movie."
Consider another real-life event that is altered in the film, a moment that speaks to the inability of even an inspiring victory to overcome the bitterness of tragedy.
"I was at the game in 1971 when Marshall beat Xavier," said Dave Wellman, director of communications at Marshall. "In the movie, it seemed kind of strange how everyone was out on the field in the dark. People were in the stands crying. I can't even explain how emotional it was. People stayed in the stands."I'm willing to forgive some of the movie's faults as the faults of a director without the trust in the innate power of real life to inspire. I'm even willing to grant that the film may be better than I think: after all, most of the real-life survivors interviewed seem satisfied with it, willing to overlook its blemishes and failures in trying to PG-rate a community's unimaginable loss.
That loss--that truth--will never translate to a screen. Maybe it's best for us that We Are Marshall fails to be true, and ultimately fails to engage us for more than a couple hours. If it succeeded, we probably couldn't handle it.
*Some would say "argument." They are timid, dispassionate bystander-types.