Okay, sorry for my time away sports fans. Let’s pick up where we left off.
In the last two posts, I’ve discussed the inversion at the heart of sports movies — how the screen serves as a window and a mirror, telling a story in opposition to a viewer’s expectations and perspective. Rookie of the Year is about a kid who’s bad at baseball, Major League is about how serious our National Pastime is, and Necessary Roughness, it turns out, is a fairly frivolous movie intended for leisure that’s pleasant and easy to watch—that is, neither Necessary, nor Rough (nor an Empire, which if you ask me is a damned shame).
And there’s my segue. Guys in green shirts.
On a more subtle level, consider We Are Marshall:
We Are Marshall claims to be about a true football story , but anybody watching it (and overthinking it) would tell you it’s really an allegory for the Vietnam War. The tones, the symbolism, the costumes, the characters—everything plays on the visual vocabulary of the myths of the period, and from end to end it carries that misty, self-knowing quality indicative of metahistory.
Maybe at some point I’ll go into more detail on it, but my take on pictures like this is that the more iconic you make a given image or character, the more allegorical it becomes by necessity, because to make it iconic you consciously or subconsciously draw upon a vocabulary of images and symbols that cannot be divorced from the ideas they represent, at least within the deep ruts carved by our well-heeled culture. It’s not Platonism, but it’s close. And it’s in this movie in spades.
The movie in brief
A tragic plane crash kills the Marshall University football team, leaving the town of Huntington, West Virginia crushed, confused and hopeless. To honor the memory of its fallen heroes, the football team is revived, but it turns out the past is irreplacable, and the university has to replace flattop-sporting, hard-nosed Robert Patrick with long-haired eccentric Matthew McConaughey. This coach won’t follow your rules, but he’ll teach you a new kind of hope, and the rest of the sports movie writes itself.
There’s one iconic moment in this iconic movie in particular that I think has something interesting to say about sports movie inversion. You see it at the end of the above trailer: the titular chanting of protesting students, “WE ARE MARSHALL,” that forces the school to bring its football team back from the brink of cancellation.
The first step in my stretch of an interpretation is to go for the homonym: “WE ARE MARTIAL.” And this is where we go through the looking glass.
Because these people are not martial. They are civilians. Students. They are the home front, the secular left-behind. They are at college—they are exempt from the draft, they are not following their lost friends, they are, by and large, going to lead long, healthy lives. Their claim, the claim that motivates everything that happens afterwards, is false.
Except that it’s the core falsehood in a sports movie, which means that, for the sake of storytelling, the movie acts like it’s true.
Like the country really stood up at the end of Vietnam and said, “Wait, we’re soldiers too. We’re all soldiers. And our friends out there didn’t die in vain, and we’re going to go on and finish the job.”
Where have I heard that before?
Oh, right. It’s a fantasy.
That is precisely what didn’t happen to the Vietnam generation.
The Fantasy In this True Story
Certain men who grew up during Vietnam and didn’t fight developed this powerful sense of having walked away from their own people, of having left members of their generation behind. And they got to be reminded of this fact every day if they lived or worked in urban areas in the 80s, as the homeless Vet became a fixture of American life even as the war he fought for faded in the rearview mirror.
We Are Marshall tells the fantasy of the people who didn’t fight, who weren’t lost, and who may have come to terms with it, but never forgot it. On the inside of the looking glass, the kids all stand up and demand to take up arms and follow their lost brothers. On our side of the looking glass, they were stung by a fear (further elaborated on in the Rambo movies by the way, in an entirely different way) that they had committed an unforgiveable sin by leaving so many behind.
Oh, it’s dressed up as a triumph, but it’s a lie just like all sports movies are lies. It’s a real tearjerker—just full of pathos—but why? The story is essentially a happy one. Why is the movie so sad?
This goes back to why there is crying in baseball movies, but not, generally, crying in baseball.
And why so many of the movies that make us all cry are fantasies.
Next entry, I’ll finish up this arc and take us to the Final Frontier.
 Now, I want to clarify, I’m talking about the movie here, not what Marshall University and its community actually went through. That story is truly inspiring, and there’s nothing false about it (nor, for all my talk of lies, do I really think there’s something dishonest about We Are Marshall; I’ll get to that eventually). And this movie wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for how inspiring that actual true story was. But it isn’t just the true story — it’s definitely a movie with its own agenda, although that word sounds unnecessarily sinister.