Yes, the movie is made by Disney, but this isn’t “The Mighty Ducks.” Gavin O’Connor’s “Miracle” tells the incredible story of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team, a group of 20 college kids who went into the 13th Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. with the lofty goal of defeating the Soviets, the greatest team in the world. Facing the Soviet team in the semifinals, the US team came out on top 4-3, pulling off one of the most incredible upsets in sports history.
The plot moves along two main tracks. The chief focus is the story of legendary coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell). Brooks had been a member of the 1960 Olympic Hockey Team but was cut a week before the games. That team then went on to win the gold medal. The film shows Brooks’ struggle to not only lead an underdog team of college kids to victory, but also to come to grips with his own goals and hopes, dreams deferred from 20 years earlier.
Russell’s depiction of Brooks is stellar. This is particularly impressive given both the nature of the character and the large deviation from the type of character that Russell is often slated to play, the gun-toting outlaw (“Escape from LA,” “3000 Miles to Graceland,” “Soldier,” etc.). Russell aptly portrays Brooks’ mix of toughness, sadness and desire, seeming opaque and frustratingly harsh around his team at times, but also showing his softer side when it is appropriate.
One particular moment when we see the latter side is after an argument with his wife (Patricia Clarkson), when he says that he cannot pick up their children due to hockey practice. After she leaves the room, essentially accusing him of being obsessed with something he couldn’t get before, he stops the hockey footage he was watching and goes to a drawer, removing a photograph of the 1960 Olympic Hockey Team, with him in it. Here, the first time we learn of the gaping hole within Brooks, Russell conveys all that we need to know through his softened stare and the regretful look in his eyes.
Russell executes all of the details well — even the Minnesota accent.
The other story line follows the team itself. The players are from various parts of the country, but chiefly from Boston and Minnesota, where college teams are bitter rivals. From June until February, the skaters are transformed from a ragtag group of enemies to a cohesive unit, to the point where the unanimous response to Brooks’ mantra, “Who do you play for?” is no longer a skater’s college, but an emphatic “USA!”
The depiction of the hockey players is extremely appropriate and well done. The actors are, in general, unknowns. They were picked from thousands of hockey players for their ability to both play the game and be comfortable around the camera. Although a few players — most notably captain Mike Eruzione (Patrick O’Brien Dempsey), goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill) and winger Jack O’Callahan (Michael Mantenuto) — are singled out, the team in general is seen as a unit. While you will remember the names that the announcers shout out during the various games, it is difficult to match them to faces. This, however, is the point. he team is not an all-star team, but just a team, and it had to work long and hard to get that way. In treating the team as a unit, this fact of the group’s development is emphasized — not the heroism of specific players.
While the players and the coach constitute the focus of the film, the use of historical context in the background is a nice touch. The movie begins with scenes from the years leading up to 1980: the resignation of President Nixon, the troubled end to the Vietnam War, economic crisis, etc. In one scene, Brooks and his wife are eating dinner when news of the Iran hostage crisis comes on. At some point, we learn of the United States’ decision to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow.
Thankfully, the film does not beat viewers over the head with the obvious parallel that the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team’s quest paralleled the Cold War — the “Cold War on Ice,” as some called it. Rather, we see the events happen as they did then to the players, as a sideshow to the important task ahead of them. Given popular US sentiment, we understand when Brooks gets a telegram saying, “Beat those Commie Bastards.” But the movie makes it clear that in 1980, hockey was being played for hockey’s sake, for the chance for David to beat Goliath, not to make statements on the Cold War.
Sports movies, while often fun to watch, are often clichZ
The most impressive deviation from the usual sports movie formula is the treatment of the game itself. Many other sports films use fanfare, tricky camera shots and slow motion to keep viewers engrossed and to highlight important scenes. The only noises that you hear in the hockey games in “Miracle” are the sounds of the game — slapshots, scraping ice, hitting the boards, etc. — and the commentary, most notably from Al Michaels in the semifinal match-up with the Soviets. The game scenes are shot straightforwardly, just like real hockey games.
“Miracle” doesn’t have much glitz. It doesn’t have much suspense or late-in-the-game heroics, because that’s not how it happened. It doesn’t have an all-star cast. You will not hear “We Will Rock You.” Despite all that, the movie provides a poignant, emotional and realistic depiction of a legendary coach and the team that he famously brought to accomplish the impossible. The accomplishment of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team inspired their country 24 years ago, and now, thanks to O’Connor’s depiction, it will inspire thousands more.