Directed by: Gavin O'Connor
Starring: Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Noah Emmerich
The amazing thing about Miracle is that it's exactly that -- a miracle.
The film is about a miracle in sports history -- the United States' astonishing ice-hockey win at the 13th Winter Olympics, in Lake Placid in 1980. The movie itself is a low-budget gem, made by relatively unknown filmmakers on their first major project. Miracle is a true-life film that takes no false steps into sentimentality, and a feel-good flick that touches your head as well as tweaks your heart. With no sex, cussing, car chases, cute kids or digital wizardry, the film manages to create magic with a timeless formula -- a simple story well told.
Don't let its title mislead you: Throw out any ideas about God intervening in the affairs of humans (though who's to say that didn't happen?), or any notion of actual angels (though supportive family and friends certainly could wear such a label). And while the bad guys seem to be the Russians, they're really characters named Insecurity and Inertia.
Critics of Miracle claim it's "patriotic," as if the word is a politically incorrect pejorative. They either didn't see the same movie as the packed sneak-preview audience I was in -- or else they're on a Pavlovian search to find some flaw in a flawless movie. Yes, it's patriotic. But isn't that what the Olympics are about -- athletes from different countries competing with one another, and channeling national interests into glory on the field of sports, instead of the field of battle? If lifetimes of training, years of yearning and the unrepeatable moments of tears and joy that make up the Olympics are patriotic, then allow me to join the pledge.
Kurt Russell (Dark Blue), in perhaps the best role of his career, plays Herb Brooks, an ice-hockey coach who dreams of turning his own personal heartbreak into national glory (20 years before, he was cut from the winning 1960 Olympic team just a week before the competition). His plan is revolutionary -- create a hybrid training program that combines the best of Canadian and Soviet methods. Unlike the "dream teams" of today (in which individual superstars team up), Brooks doesn't want the best players, he wants the right ones -- young athletes who can subsume their individual egos to play in perfect harmony with their teammates.
Hockey is the consummate team sport. And at the time this film is set, the best Olympic team is the Russians, some of whom have been playing together for as long as 15 years. By contrast, Brooks has seven months to turn a motley crew of youngsters -- the average age is 21 -- into a team that won't embarrass its U.S. sponsors. Not unlike Marine Corps boot camp, the coach mercilessly tears down each individual, in order to build them all into a team in which each member is equally important.
Brooks has little support. Even his assistant coach (Noah Emmerich, Beyond Borders) questions Brooks' methods. His isle of comfort is his wife, played by the marvelous Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of Eight), who captures in a few short scenes the essence of what it means to be the spouse of a sports-obsessed husband.
True to his philosophy of teamwork, Brooks refuses to allow the press to interview individual players. And director Gavin O'Connor (Tumble Weeds), working in a medium that celebrates the lone-wolf hero, also miraculously adheres to this philosophy, resisting the usual temptation to create stars out of the attractive hockey players on his movie's team. Except for goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill, TV's Friends) -- who really did play the game of his lifetime -- team members are portrayed on screen with equal time. (Special affection, however, is due hockey player Billy Schneider, who actually plays his own real-life father, 1980 team member Buzz Schneider.)
Not all of Miracle is joyous. We all talk about win-win negotiations, but in the harsh reality of competitive sports, some people triumph and others lose -- and not everyone can be chosen for the final team. Certainly the heartbreak of being cut at the last moment is something that aches with a player for the rest of his life -- and, as the movie shows, there's no easy way to deliver such news. All of us who have taken risks and lost will feel these scenes to the marrow.
Yet in movies, it's the winning that makes the memories. "This is your time!" Brooks cheers on his team. "Take it!"
-- reviewed by Marci Miller