A film review by Craig J. Koban

craiger'sfirstreview

January, 2004

MIRACLE jjj
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2004, PG, 116 mins.

Herb Brooks: Kurt Russell / Jim Craig: Eddie Cahill / Jack O'Callahan: Michael Mantenuto / Mike Eruzione: Patrick O'Brien Dempsey / Ralph Cox: Kenneth Mitchell / Rob McClanahan: Nathan West / Craig Patrick: Noah Emmerich / Mrs. Brooks: Patricia Clarkson

Directed by Gavin O'Connor /  Written by Eric Guggenheim

Let's face it, hockey is and always has been (as far as Canadians are concerned, myself included) our game.  It's in our collective consciousness, our spirits, and it's an inseparable and integral part of our national history and culture.  The intoxicating allure of the game is really what separates us from everyone else.   

Itís ironic, having said that, because on February 22, 1980 the game really belonged to the U.S. Olympic Hockey team. 

The 1970's that paved the way for the 80's were riddled with social and political calamities for the United States.  Watergate all but polarized the American public and can be attributed for the genuine lack of trust in political figures that can still be seen in the present day.  The U.S. failure in Vietnam left its citizens flabbergasted.  The Cold War, in the late 70's, was reaching a climatic peak.  In 1979 not only did Moscow invade Afghanistan, but a group of Iranians took U.S. citizens hostage, which erupted into a national crisis.  Before the dawn of 1980, President Jimmy Carter, in a gutsy presidential address, told the American people that he was fearing that they were losing "confidence" in their country. 

But on February 22, 1980 in Lake Placid, New York a ragtag group of American hockey players defeated the then unstoppable Russian team and went on to win a gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics. 

So, big deal...right? 

Itís easy to overlook the cultural and historical significance of this victory, the "Miracle on Ice".  It was analogous to a bunch of pond hockey players defeating the Detroit Red Wings.  The U.S. never defeated the Russians in 20 years up until 1980.  The Russians, a year earlier, punished a team of NHL All-Stars 6-0.  The U.S. hockey team that was gathered in 1980 did not have the "best of the best", but were comprised of mostly adequate talent.  The Russian team was arguably the best hockey team in the world with one of the best goaltenders ever to lace up the skates.  They had players that were teammates for 15 years, whereas the U.S. team only had six months to develop chemistry.  Yet, on that day in Lake Placid nearly 24 years ago, a Minnesota coach with a bit of University experience named Herb Brooks took his team of misfits and won what ESPN.com voted as  "the greatest game in sports history."  That game instilled confidence in the Americans and it was a breath of fresh air that made people forget the problem-filled 1970's.  

Simply put...it gave them something to just cheer about. 

MIRACLE, a wonderful new family entertainment, is the story of this great sports moment.  However,  it's not so much about the victory as it is about the journey towards the victory.  At the center of it all is Herb Brooks, played very effectively by Kurt Russell, and the film is really his story of how he commanded a singular and confident vision to take the U.S. team to Olympic victory.  Almost everyone around Brooks basically thought him to be a lunatic, including his players.  Truth be told, he was by no means perfect: he was brash, rude, verbally abusive, insensitive towards his staff and players, and used highly questionable methods to train and motivate his players.  Yet, he was a man with a vision and clear goals and should be respected as an individual who maintained his focus and never lost track of it.  The power of MIRACLE is that it too never loses focus of Brooks the coach.  In a world in which sports pictures are dominated by the young players, it's great to see one that focuses on the near military-esque tactics that coaches employ to win games. 

Russell has never been better than he is here, and if the Academy could lengthen its tight attention spans to remember this performance come next year, Russell should walk away with a nomination.  Considering that he has played everything from the sci-fi action hero Snake Pliskin to the mythic Wyatt Earp, Brooks is Russell's most sincere, honest, and real character he has ever played.  The supporting cast is also uniformly good, which is surprising considering that they hired hockey players first and actors second.  The final 25 minutes, which includes the climatic game versus the Russians, is a virtuoso series of action set pieces in which its fantastic editing and cinematography provides us with a grunt view of the proceedings. It's so raw and visceral that you feel like you are on the ice with the players; this isn't THE MIGHTY DUCKS...MIRACLE is the SAVING PRIVATE RYAN of hockey films. 

There is one small and tender moment in the film that truly separates it from all other sports films.  It's a scene near the end of the U.S. victory versus the Russians when Brooks runs out of the arena of screaming fans and cheering players.  He stops in a quiet and desolate corridor and finally releases a sign of not only jubilation and pride, but also of internal satisfaction and relief.  He pumps his hands in the air and almost whisper/cries "yes" and finally collapses against a wall and seemingly breaks down.  Here is a man who is mentally and physically spent, but emotionally as satisfied as he'll ever be.  You can feel that his victory is a 20-year culmination of all of his dreams, and Russell sells this moment so perfectly.  Sports films are rarely this sensitive and introspective. 

MIRACLE is one of the surprisingly effective sports pictures of the last few years.  It's a genuinely inspirational story that should not only appease and entertain hockey fans, but people who like stories of people overcoming immeasurable odds.  It's kind of amazing how well the film has the patience to develop its story.  It's both sincere with its introductions and surprisingly tense and exciting in its conclusion (which is amazing considering how anti-climatic the story really is...we all know who wins!).  It not only pays respect to the game of hockey by focusing on strategy, but it really allows the people behind the bench to come out and shine.  Isn't it refreshing in a sports film to have the coach stand up and be the hero?

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