Full disclosure: I was a kid in Morgantown, West Virginia, on Nov. 14, 1970, when a plane crash killed virtually the entire football team of Marshall University in Huntington, a couple hundred miles and a heartbeat away from where I lived. Seventy-five people--coaches, players, staff, the athletic director and a whole lot of boosters and civic leaders from a town of just 50,000--died in what the FAA called the year's worst domestic air disaster. The population of the whole state is about one-fourth that of New York City, so imagine the effect on New York if the entire Yankees roster and several city leaders died in a crash, and then intensify that by four, and you'll have some idea of how our entire state went into shock. So I'm both the best and the worst person to review this movie.

As a tribute to those young men and the others, We Are Marshall is a moving experience that I'm not ashamed to say had me often in tears (a little embarrassed, but not ashamed). The story doesn't focus on the crash, unseen except for the aftermath, but instead on the messy questions of how a decimated community can cope, grieve and honor, and itself come back to life. There are no handbooks that could tell the townsfolk what you're supposed to do, whether you're the college president or a widowed fiancée with a ring. So, speaking as a dispassionate critic, does it work as drama?

Leaving aside Matthew McConaughey's quirky performance as replacement coach Jack Lengyel--which actually does grow on you--yes. Very much so. Despite what qualms one might have had about pretentiously named ex-music-video director McG (a.k.a. Joseph McGinty Nichol of Kalamazoo, Michigan), whose only previous features are the two blustery Charlie's Angels movies, the guy clearly has enough human empathy and experience that his film conveys real emotion and not schmaltz. Working with a script by Jamie Linden, from a story by Linden and Cory Helms, he seamlessly stitches an ensemble story that doesn't come off as disconnected or soap-operatic. Brisk and efficient yet with resonance and reflection, his direction here is like Ringo Starr's drumming--deceptively straightforward, only slowly revealing its artistry of appropriateness.

College president Don Dedmon--played by the usually excellent David Strathairn a bit tentatively and stammeringly for a guy who rose to such a position of leadership--is torn over whether to reinstate football at Marshall, or how to even do it if that were the decision. Ian McShane, who plays a composite character, school-board head and grieving father Paul Griffin, supplies gravity without unctuousness as the voice of those who want to suspend the program. Matthew Fox as William "Red" Dawson, one of the three surviving assistant coaches (and who, despite artistic license, was not listed in the local papers as initially believed dead), carries the same pained weight-of-the-world as he does on TV's "Lost."

As with 2004's fine Friday Night Lights, you can categorize We Are Marshall as a student-football film. But the point of each is different. The former uses football, as sports movies usually do, as a metaphor for life. This one uses football as a metaphor for church--a common place where, when tragedy occurs, a community can gather to express its cathartic pain and to give one another solace and strength. That McG makes it vital and energetic, and not morose or preachy, shows a director on top of his game. The fairy-tale ending, incidentally, really happened.