Jan 1, 2007

when the truth isn't true enough: We Are Marshall

Watched "We Are Marshall" the other day, and didn't really like it. (Neither did my wife. We are cut from the same reel.) In a vigorous discussion* with my brother about the merits of the film, and whether one should judge a film solely on its own merits, the issue of truth came up.

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.

"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."
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Just curious...have you ever been to Huntington, WV. Where did you get your "facts"?

Jim Anderson said...

I researched various newspapers, especially the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. No, I've never been to Huntington.

Marc said...

Your comments are meaningless. I have talked to two friends who lost parents in the plane crash and they are thrilled that Warner Brothers kept their promise to tell the story accurately. It's a dramatic representation of the events, not a documentary. If you want that watch "Ashes to Glory."

Jim Anderson said...

marc, calling my comments "meaningless" doesn't help me figure out why or how I might be wrong.

I'm not claiming the movie isn't accurate as a whole, or that it shouldn't be appreciated--only that the director flubs a few essential scenes by not trusting in the power of the truth.

Even documentaries can slant the truth--Michael Moore, anyone?--and, on the other side, "dramatic representations" that show "just the facts, ma'am" can be wooden and uninspiring ("Tora Tora Tora" springs to mind.)

caroline joy said...

"Maybe I'm just cranky, and maybe my beef is stringy and overcooked."

Hey brother...some people in the world enjoyed this movie. Not everything "inspired by" or "based on" a true story will be a play-by-play. Knowing that beforehand, as I know you did - you're smarter than that - you should have said something about not wanting to see that particular film. I don't know..I guess you just shouldn't bite the hand that feeds you. I quoted a little tidbit of your own blog because that is MY interpretation of your review :) But I still love you..and still like your Twilight Zone (which is at our house, by the way.) Good game tonight, eh? I'll be seeing you later! Off to Portland in 2 days! I hope you enjoyed your stay there. :)

Jim Anderson said...

caroline joy,

The movie doesn't say "inspired by" or "based on" a true story. It says "this is a true story." It's even on the poster.

And that's where others agree that it fails.

Look even at McG's overstatement:

"Every single element of the story we told is true. We didn't have to say 'based on' or 'inspired by.' This is a true story and I wanted to keep Hollywood out of it, to the best of my ability. I just wanted the story to speak for itself. It is a story that belongs to the citizens of Huntington, West Virginia and I didn't want ugly Hollywood coming in and messing up; and I certainly didn't want any of my old habits coming in either, because this picture, for me, is 180 degrees removed from anything I've ever been affiliated with. This felt like a great story and I really wanted to stay out of the way of it and let the fundamentally compelling nature of the story rise to the top," he says.

Irony of ironies.

Caroline Joy! said...

Okay...so you're right in semantics. It does say "this is.."

I still believe the story is good and worth the price of the ticket.Though I did not read thoroughly through the history of the actual event, I didn't find it necessary. It's important to know their story, and not make a big deal out of the fact that they may not have said, "We are...Marshall!!" in reality until after the fact. It's Hollywood..and a minute detail.

Anyway, I'm done with this. I like the movie, I respect that you (and apparently your wife) did not agree with it for one reason and another. So..onto the next new inspirational sports movie, eh? Invincible... :)

I love you guys!
How was Portland?..did you make it down there?

Jim Anderson said...

I actually want to watch Invincible now. Scary, eh?

Melissa said...


Portland was great. We had beautiful weather (at least on Sunday) and had a nice, relaxing, quiet New Year. I actually didn't even stay awake for the count-down. Jim woke me up at midnight and said "Happy 2007!"

Anonymous said...

The whole reason I'm not going to see "We are Marshall" is that I got hornswaggled into seeing "Glory Road" about Coach Haskins and his Texas Western team and they totally butchered the factual details of that movie... They had him winning the title in his first year as head coach at Texas Western even though he didn't do it until his sixth year and they had no black players on the team when he arrived there even though there were already several black players on the team... It could have made for a great movie sticking with the facts, but that would be too much work for an average director.

Jordan said...

The We Are chant started at Penn State in the 1940's; it's a blatant rip off...

Anonymous said...

I go to movies to be entertained and what i saw was a town and a school that rebounded from the worst plane crash in college sports history. I think we have to allow a little artistic license here. There's enough truth here and they do tell the story fairly well. People not signing off to have their character in the movie is going to create composite characters. Big deal. Interestingly enough in the mid 80's till Marshall left the Southern Conference, they were my schools biggest rival and no school i disliked more. However, after seeing the movie i saw Marshall University in a different light. Must be worth watching if you have an open mind.