It is one of the myths of the American cinema that men do not know how to deal with grief. In particular, part of that myth is the idea that there are certain movies made for women like, oh say, Beaches, but that there is no analogue to that kind of film for men. Grief has no place in sports movies for instance.
This is, of course, utter nonsense. And this holiday season, we are blessed with two films that illustrate this point to perfection, dealing with sports and grief: Rocky Balboa and We Are Marshall.
It should be said that most sports films that deal with grief, deal with the death of an athlete, like in Beaches, the entire film is a set-up for the grief that we feel in the last reel. Like The Lou Gehrig Story or the classic TV movie Brian’s Song. A few films offer us grief as a way to motivate a team to success like the famous “Gipper” speech in The Knute Rockne Story. But a handful of films start with death and the rest of the film is an exploration of the consequence of the grief that death causes. Just such a film are the two released this year. The best previous example of a film built on this structure is Rudy, a film that consciously quotes The Knute Rockne Story, but is infinitely more wise about grief.
Based on the true story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, a life-long fan of Notre Dame, who leaves his job as a steel mill worker after the death of his best friend in an industrial accident. Consumed by grief, Rudy decides to pursue his goal of becoming a member of the Notre Dame football team, despite poor grades in high school, and a total lack of athletic ability. He ends up enrolling in a junior college for two years just to build up his academic credentials enough to be admitted to Notre Dame. Then despite being five foot nothing, he cracks the Notre Dame practice squad, the kind of guy that coaches keep around because their heart is ten sizes too big for their bodies or their abilities.
”If you had a tenth of the heart of Ruettiger, you'd have made All-American by now!” - Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame coach from Rudy
Rudy’s dream of actually playing for Notre Dame is a small dream, but still impossible. The wisdom of the film comes in pointing out that while pursuing his impossible dream, Rudy does get a quality education. The entire point of the pursuit of his dream is that Rudy feels that he must escape the life of a steel mill worker that has already doomed his dead best friend. It is only when others point it out that Rudy realizes that in getting an education in pursuit if his dream, that he has reached his goal.
In the end, Rudy does get to dress for the last game of the season of his final year. It is an unlikely underdog victory, but at the same time it is striking on how small a scale Rudy’s dream is.
The goals of both Rocky Balboa and We Are Marshall are equally small in scale. Rocky merely wants to not disgrace himself in an exhibition match and finish the contest; Marshall University merely wants to field a football team after a disaster claims virtually the entire team. Neither seeks victory. That would be too ambitious for the human scale of these films.
Rocky Balboa is a fitting bookend to the series. Like in the first film, Rocky merely wants to compete against the heavyweight champion and not disgrace himself. The film starts with Rocky visiting the grave of his dead wife Adrian, and it is the grief of her death that shades the entire film affecting all the men that have been left behind: Rocky, who is trapped in nostalgia and can’t move on; her brother, Paulie, who is consumed with self-loathing for how he treated his sister while she was alive; and her son. Rocky Jr., who finds himself unable to relate to his father - torn between admiration and embarrassment.
The odd thing is that the traditional dynamic of the Rocky fans is for Adrian to be the impediment that keeps us from the fights, the one trying to prevent Rocky from fighting, or the part of the story that must be dealt with before we can get to the fight scenes. As a result, Adrian is by far the least liked Rocky character by most Rocky fans. But in this final Rocky film, Adrian, or her ghost, is the motivating factor that drives Rocky back to the ring. It is Rocky’s inability to deal with the rage that her death caused him that drives him to want to fight again.
The only jarring disconnect is the one that the film fights against the entire way, the fantasy of someone as old as Rocky getting into the ring and competing against someone nearly thirty years younger than him. We can understand why Rocky wants to get back into the ring, but it takes a lot of heavy lifting imagination wise to believe that Rocky wouldn’t get slaughtered in the ring in the first five minutes. Fifteen years ago, this would have been a great movie, now it is a flawed diamond that struggles valiantly to shine despite its flaws.
We Are Marshall is a much more human, a much wiser film, benefitting as it does from its status as a true story. In 1970, a charter plane bringing the Marshall University football team home crashed killing 75 people, including all but four players, and all but one coach, and claiming the lives of prominent members of Huntington, West Virginia who were on the plane as boosters of the team.
The film follows the efforts of the University to rebuild the team against some local opposition, as well as the effect that the crash has on a variety of different members of the town, including the surviving players, especially Nate Ruffin played by Anthony Mackie; the surviving coach, Red Dawson, played by Matthew Fox, the son of the team’s dead announcer, played by Christian Kaupke, the father of one of the dead players and that player’s fiancée, played by Ian McShane and Kate Mara respectively; not to mention David Straitharn who plays the University President, Donald Dedmon, who ends up fired over his decision to bring back the football program.
Some reviewers have complained that the film lacks focus, because of the variety of characters, especially since some of those characters refuse to have anything to do with the rebuilding of the football program. I would argue the exact opposite. One of the virtues of the film is the way that it acknowledges that everyone grieves differently, and gives us a myriad of characters each of whom cope differently with their loss, not all wisely or well.
The film also eschews the kind of soppy sentimentality that could drag the film down. The son of the dead announcer for instance haunts the stadium watching the team prepare. Most films would have had him somehow interjected into the football program, perhaps offering the coach a play designed by his father or some such nonsense. The film, and the Marshall coaches, wisely offers us none of this. He is there like a ghost haunting the team. He is given his space and time to grieve and is ignored.
The other main criticism is that of Matthew McConaughey as the new head coach of Marshall, Jack Lengyel. It has been suggested that his performance is all hair and teeth. Certainly his character doesn’t have the emotional arc of the Matthew Fox character, but his character is key to the movie as someone who recognizes the depth of the wound and Huntington and quietly resolves to heal the damage and sets out to do a complex job by reducing it to its simplest terms. Since his best skill is to coach football teams, he will do that job well and hope that it heals wounds. In much the same way, McConaughey is giving a very nuanced performance of a complicated man who tried to make things simple, and risked at times appearing to be simple himself.
In much the same way We Are Marshall appears to be a simple film, but it is making a complex and heart-breaking statement about how we cope with grief as individuals and as communities.