January 19, 2004


I wasn't even a teenager yet when coach Herb Brooks led the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to its shocking victory over the undefeatable Russian squad, but I remember it vividly. Of course, just having watching a beautiful, by-the-number re-creation of the events leading up to that historic day in American history make it a lot easier to recall how excited everyone was at the time. I was too young to care about or remember what the world was like leading up to that day in January. The Vietnam War was still fresh and stinking in everyone's mind, Watergate, gas shortages, President Jimmy Carter's famous speech about American malaise. American morale was sinking fast. What better place to look for escape and inspiration than sports?

When I refer to MIRACLE as "by-the-number," I mean that in the best possible way. There's no pumped-up fluff here. No annoying flashback, stylistic tricks, funky camera angles, or playing fast and furious with the facts. As for as I can tell, this is pretty much a straight retelling of what happened. The truth provides its own drama, rhythm, and arc. For more tolerable than 1981's TV movie "Miracle on Ice," MIRACLE begins with Herb Brooks (nicely underplayed by Kurt Russell) applying for the job that made him famous. The Olympic committee was only interesting in not seeing the team embarrass itself, but Brooks wanted to beat the Russian more than anything. But pulling together a group of players to train for only a few months and having them beat this indestructible force that had been playing together for years seemed unlikely. The film wonderfully dissects Brooks unorthodox, sometimes brutal process of training his boys not to be the best individual players they could be, but the best team, acting with a single mind. And the transformation is astonishing and it's all on the screen. Brooks (who died shortly after principle photography on the film was finished) had a single goal in mind for most of 1979 and didn't care who he alienated, including his assistant coach, Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich) or his wife (Patricia Clarkson, who's far too good to take such a thankless role, but boy was I glad to see her anyway).

The film's length (in this work print, about 140 minutes by my count) may discourage some, but it shouldn't. It may even shock some to learn that we don't even get to the Lake Placid games until about the 90-minute mark. It doesn't matter. The real work for this team was getting to Lake Placid, not being there. What I found most impressive about director Gavin O'Connor's (TUMBLEWEEDS) approach to MIRACLE is that he doesn't present any of the players as stand-outs until the Olympics begin. Names like team captain Mike Eruzione and goalie Jim Craig are embedded in my memory forever, but that was because of the media's need to find individual heroes amongst the team members, not because Brooks put any of them in the foreground to get all of the glory. Quite the opposite, some key players were at risk of losing their positions right up until the game. Much like Brooks approach, O'Connor has not cast too many recognizable actors in the roles of the players. Not having much research on the film as yet, I don't think I'd be going out on a limb at guessing that many of the players weren't actors at all. Another smart move by O'Connor and company was to leave the patriotism in the stands. None of the characters dwell on the sense of patriotism this game inspired at the time. It's still a factor of the film (thanks to hundreds of American flags held by fans), but it's not dwelled upon.

Not surprisingly, as good as the build up is, the payoff of MIRACLE is phenomenal. The painstaking work that went into restaging these legendary hockey games is so clear. It feels as if the semi-final game against the Russians is played back in real time, and it's a wise move to spend the time with that game, so we can see all of Brooks' plans and strategies come together. Knowing what went into preparing for that game, nothing that happens surprises us. People in my screening of this film were cheering with each goal and leaping out of their seats when the game ends. I'm not a big fan of sports films as a rule, whether they're true life stories of complete fiction; there's typically only a couple of different ways they can possibly play out. But the story of MIRACLE is so powerful and the execution of this film so strong, you can't help be get excited and feel inspired. MIRACLE is the first great movie I'm seen in 2004. It's scheduled to open February 6.

Posted by sprokopy at January 19, 2004 10:29 PM