Miracle (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

February 22, 1980. For hockey fans, that day will be forever remembered. "The Miracle on Ice," as it became commonly known, was to some a battle in the Cold War and to others the greatest upset in sports history. But to those who played in the game, it was validation and an opportunity to move on to win an Olympic gold medal. In the United States, hockey has always been the runt of the major sports litter, trailing football, baseball, and basketball in popularity. But, for a few days in Lake Placid 24 years ago, it was suddenly, briefly bigger than all of its siblings.

Miracle is a reasonably straightforward re-telling of how the team was assembled, polished, and pushed into battle under the relentless domination of its coach, Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell). The film ends with a 20-minute re-creation of the classic game, complete with audio excerpts of the original broadcast by Al Michaels (with his immortal call - "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" - included). For the most part, Eric Guggenheim's screenplay is respectful of the historical record. He takes minimal artistic license, except during some of the quieter scenes when the participants are away from the rink.

Miracle is told from Brooks' perspective, and, as a result, he's the only well-developed character. (The film is dedicated to the coach, who died shortly after primary photography completed.) He has a wife (Patricia Clarkson), a son and daughter, and a burning desire to lead Team USA to an Olympic victory. Most of his players are either anonymous or identifiable only by a trait or two. They include goal tender Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill), who plays to honor his recently deceased mother; team captain Mike Eruzione (Patrick O'Brien Demsey), who is in danger of being the last man cut from the squad; and hotshot Jack O'Callahan (Michael Mantenuto). Then there's assistant coach Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich), who is torn between loyalty to Brooks and compassion for the boys. Brooks' tough-as-nails philosophy becomes apparent early. He believes two things: (1) if his players are in top physical condition, they can skate with anyone, and (2) their dislike of him will bind them together as a team. He is not their father or their friend; he's their general.

I remember late 1979 and early 1980, and it was a grim time. The Cold War was frigid, with the Russians having invaded Afghanistan. The US Embassy fell to Iranian fundamentalists, leading to the most public hostage crisis in recent memory. Gas shortages resulted in astronomical prices and long lines. The economy was in bad shape, with "stagflation" causing job losses and double-digit interest rates. Jimmy Carter's presidency was in trouble and the whole world seemed to be close to the brink. Then came the Miracle on Ice, and, to those of us in the West, it was like a beacon in the night. The Soviets were unbeatable, but we defeated them without firing a shot.

Director Gavin O'Connor, who got his start with the indie film Tumbleweeds, manages to capture the geo-political aspects of the Miracle on Ice without turning this into a rah-rah exercise in jingoism. There's a certain amount of national pride in evidence, but rarely does this movie seem like a battle between American Democracy and Soviet Socialism. The phrase I remember most clearly at the time was "Get those commie bastards!" Yet it is heard only once in Miracle, and is spoken dismissively. Without ignoring the wider repercussions, O'Connor elects to focus on the David vs. Goliath battle that takes place in the rink. His re-creation of the climactic game is masterful (and must have taken a lot of hard work). He successfully builds suspense and generates a rousing conclusion even when we know beforehand what's coming.

O'Connor's shorthand for establishing the era is simple-yet-effective: he uses television cues and newspaper headlines. They're all over the place, from the Jessica Savitch newsclip to the black-and-white images of Soviet tanks to the Mean Joe Green Coke commercial. We hear a speech by President Carter in which he laments how Americans have lost hope in the future. That hope was not restored by an American hockey victory in Lake Placid, but every snowball has to start with a few random flakes.

Kurt Russell's performance is worth mentioning. Best known for his on-screen portrayal of flamboyant characters and his off-screen partnership with Goldie Hawn, Russell immerses himself so completely in this role that we lose sight of him. All that's left is Brooks. What's especially impressive is that Russell doesn't look a whole lot like his cinematic alter-ego. It's his acting, not a strong physical resemblance, that convinces us. And, since nearly everyone else in the film is played by a relative unknown, there's never a problem with baggage.

In recent years, Disney has scored a couple of big hits with based-on-real-life sports stories (Remember the Titans and The Rookie). There's no reason that Miracle can't succeed in the same way. The story is as crowd-pleasing as it gets, with the only possible misstep being that the first half (which deals with the assembling of the team) occasionally seems to drag. There's no need to understand hockey to appreciate the film; it has universal appeal. (That being said, anyone with a good hockey background will find that the film works on another level. Ditto for those who remember the 1980 Olympics as more than a distant, background memory.) Miracle is inspirational and uplifting - qualities we are as much in need of today as we were during the winter of 1980.

Miracle (United States, 2004)

Director: Gavin O'Connor
Cast: Kurt Russell, Eddie Cahill, Michael Mantenuto, Patrick O'Brien Demsey, Nathan West, Noah Emmerich, Patricia Clarkson
Screenplay: Eric Guggenheim
Cinematography: Dan Stoloff
Music: Mark Isham
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 2004-02-06
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1