It was a moment that America will not soon forget. At the 1980 Winter Olympics, the United States hockey team improbably beat the Soviet team, which was widely considered unbeatable. I was twelve at the time; although I’d never followed hockey, or any sport for that matter, I distinctly remember the joy everyone seemed to feel about the victory, myself included. It seemed like everybody was talking about it, rejoicing in it. As an adult, I can look back with a much greater understanding of what that event meant in the larger context of things: the Cold War, the end of a turbulent decade, etc. Miracle brings the story of the U.S. Olympic hockey team to the big screen, perhaps not so coincidentally in a time when patriotism is of renewed importance to us all.
Kurt Russell stars as Herb Brooks, the team coach. Like everyone else, he recognizes that the Soviet team is the best in the world. However, he talks about having the American team play with a new strategy – one that combines elements from Soviet and Canadian strategies. If his idea works, Brooks argues, there is a real chance that the Americans can at least make a decent showing at the Olympics. Perhaps they can even win.
No one fully understands Herb’s methods, but they seem to work. He handpicks a group of players – “not the best players, but the right players,” he argues – and starts them on an ultra-rigorous training mission. He demands unquestioning devotion from his team, letting him know that he is their coach, not their friend. The team doctor, who has known Herb for a long time, reminds assistant coach Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich) that there’s a reason behind everything the man does. The team initially questions his tactics, but eventually they see the difference Herb’s unorthodox approach is yielding.
We all know where the story leads from here.
Miracle is a Walt Disney picture, and it fits squarely in their mini-genre of feel-good sports movies about underdogs. Cool Runnings, The Rookie, and Remember the Titans also fall under this category. What these films have in common is that they are sturdy and entertaining, but not particularly deep portrayals of athletic victory. They are crowd-pleasers, pure and simple. I think Miracle might have had more long-term impact had it shown us exactly how the team got so good in only six months. I wanted to know some of the aspects of the strategy Herb creates from the Soviet and Canadian models. That might have been really interesting stuff, and it might have created a clearer picture of what went into developing this team. Instead, we get a lot of routine training montages in which Herb pushes his players to work harder, give more, reach the next level. Somehow, it had to have been a little more complex than this.
Now that I have that small criticism out of the way, let me state once again that Miracle is intended to be a crowd-pleaser. Regardless of any other flaw, it works on that level. Aided by a solid cast, director Gavin O’Connor (whose Tumbleweeds was an indie hit in 1999) manages to make the story exciting even though we all know the outcome. He stages the hockey scenes with incredible realism. They are filled with enough excitement to make even the most sports-averse viewer sit on the edge of his or her seat. What happens is that you get a real sensation of how difficult hockey is. There’s a lot going on, all of it happening really fast. The puck moves with such speed that it’s sometimes hard to keep an eye on it. The players are rocketing around the ice on little blades. They have to keep their balance, maintain their focus, and avoid getting slammed into by the opposing team. I’ve never seen a movie depict the sport with such intensity.
The other really terrific part of the film is the performance from Kurt Russell. Here’s an interesting actor. He is not a box office draw in the same way that Denzel Washington is, or that Harrison Ford is. You don’t hear people talking about “the new Kurt Russell movie.” And yet he often appears in good films where the story is the star. Russell appears to have little vanity as a performer. He wants to be part of the bigger picture rather than being the centerpiece. He’s reliable too. Russell brings a wonderfully enigmatic quality to Herb Brooks; the character rarely lets others know what his plan is, yet he always projects a feeling that there is a plan. One of the most interesting things the character does is to walk into a room, make a pronouncement, then walk out before anyone can respond. You have to convey authority to make stuff like that work; Russell conveys that authority with great believability.
There’s another strong moment where Herb, who can only have 20 guys on his team, has to cut one member. Although he doesn’t make a grandiose speech, or do something melodramatic like hugging the guy, it is very clear how difficult this cut is for Herb. He feels the weight of a shattered dream and remains stoic in the face of it. This scene really moved me. Kurt Russell understands Herb Brooks inside and out. His performance ranks as one of the most compelling portraits of a coach ever committed to film.
Miracle is a hard picture to not like. The story is obviously dramatic and inspirational. It would be hard to mess up. However, that doesn’t mean that the film hasn’t been made with skill. It has. The elements have combined to create a movie that does please the crowd and does make you feel very, very good.
( out of four)
Miracle is rated PG for language and some rough sports action. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.
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