Truly a Miracle
In 1979, the world's political and economic climate was in complete chaos. Inflation was at an all-time high and consumer confidence was at a 50-year low. Not to mention that the United States and the Soviet Union were stubbornly locked in a dangerous battle of idealism known as the Cold War. The U.S. Olympic Hockey program hovered somewhere between stagnant and aimlessly afloat on a drifting iceberg. Enter Herb Brooks, a successful college hockey coach who would not only create what some say is the greatest moment in U.S. sporting history, but become responsible for rallying an entire nation.
As Miracle opens, director Gavin O'Connor immerses the viewer in a sea of atmospheric nostalgia with a video montage of vintage news footage, old television commercials and pop-culture images of the late '70s. This is important because as much as Miracle is about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team victory over the Soviet Union, it is more about how a team transcended a game to ignite the patriotism of a nation in desperate need of a distraction from a world of energy shortages, nuclear threat and a receding economy. O'Connor continuously peppers the film with these historical references to keep us grounded in an authentic framework.
We first meet Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) as he is hired to assemble and coach a team of amateur hockey players that can make a respectable showing in the upcoming Winter Olympic games just seven short months away. The past U.S. hockey teams hadn't medaled since the 1960 Winter Games and the "suits" were getting restless! We quickly learn that any outcome short of victory won't please Brooks, so he devises a plan to completely alter the way American hockey is played. The Russians are faster, stronger and smarter, so through conditioning, creativity and teamwork, Brooks creates a hockey hybrid constructed from a blend of Eastern European and Canadian styles of hockey.
No two things can kill a good sports movie faster than unrealistically brutal action and actors that don't move like athletes. Any Given Sunday and most of the Rocky movies were virtually ruined by their use of overly emphatic collisions and punches that would kill any normal human being. Kevin Costner displayed nothing that resembled a baseball pitcher, effectively reducing For Love of the Game to rubbish. Miracle performs like a champ with regards to both aspects. While it never shies from accurately depicting the brutality of hockey, neither does it overindulge. Though much of the hockey action leading up to the "big" game is left to voice-overs (from a young Al Michaels) and screen-graphic recaps, as the Americans and Soviets finally square off in their medal round match-up, we are treated to some of the best on-ice hockey action ever put on film. Never once did the action seem fake or "creatively" edited. The filmmakers were meticulous in accurately depicting each and every shot, who shot it, at and from where on the ice the shot was taken. The filmmakers got nearly everything perfect.
Kurt Russell is a rock as he embodies the soul of a man who lived for hockey. He juxtaposes Brooks' cold, calculated demeanor in several tender scenes with his wife (Patricia Clarkson), showing great dexterity and range. His accent -- not to mention his hair -- is flawless with just the right "twinge" of Canada. Brooks was a steely man with a big heart, but the good coaches know, to lose a team's respect is to bare too much compassion.
Ironically, where O'Connor and first-time screenwriter Eric Guggenheim experience most of Miracle's success is in their restraint. Never are we force-fed fake patriotism or Nationalistic pride, and never does it attempt to become an anti-"commie" film. The Soviet teammates are depicted with great intimidation, but even in defeat, they maintain the grace and composure of the great athletes that they were. It would have been easy to portray the Russian coach as a raging, out-of-control lunatic, but instead we see him as a coach who knew, that on that particular night, he had been outplayed and out-smarted.
To say that Miracle is a great hockey movie, or even one of the greatest sports movies ever is to slight its accomplishments. Like most Disney features, it is an inspirational event that will touch everyone. Although we know the outcome of the game, and we understand the significance of the achievement, Miracle still promises to entertain, educate and to never let us forget how a ragtag bunch of kids made America stop and feel proud again.
(Released by Walt Disney Pictures and rated PG for language and some rough sports action.)
Review also posted on www.franksreelreviews.com.