'Miracle': The Olympic Team That Melted a Nation's Heart
Friday, February 6, 2004
Kurt Russell has aged into a thoroughly credible character actor, his bright blue eyes and trademark dimples having receded into forgiving pillows of flesh. From Disney's Everykid of the 1960s, he has become a convincing Everyman, and one easy to root for: Even if he doesn't always play a nice guy, viewers instinctively like and trust him.
Russell is the ideal man to play Herb Brooks, the legendary coach who in 1980 shepherded the U.S. ice hockey team to a gold medal in the Winter Olympics. But that year, the gold was merely an afterthought to the penultimate game, the match between the United States and the Soviet Union. Part David-and-Goliath athletic showdown, part Cold War grudge match, the game was so exciting, so emotionally charged, so fraught with superpower politics that most people over 30 can tell you where they were when they saw it. (And they did see it.)
"Miracle" is the glossy, mythologized version of how Brooks built that U.S. team, which over seven months morphed from 26 undisciplined hot shots into a sinewy, tightly coiled fighting unit. With a schedule of punishing physical conditioning workouts and a sneaky penchant for mind games, Brooks created the only team that stood a chance of facing down the vaunted Soviets.
He studied films of the Soviet team incessantly, concluding that the team's success was based on "skating, passing, flow, creativity." That combination of raw physical power and intuition, he surmised, had been missing from American efforts, both amateur and professional. "We don't defend [against] them," he shouts during one of his many motivational speeches. "We attack them." ("Miracle" notes with light irony that Brooks achieved his goal by dismantling the quintessentially American individualism of his players and forcing them to accept the collectivist notion of a greater good.)
That fighting spirit propels "Miracle" to its conclusion, which is no less gripping for being well known already. Director Gavin O'Connor has assembled a terrific cast to tell the story, from an ensemble of young, attractive actors playing Brooks's hockey players to Patricia Clarkson as his wife and Noah Emmerich as his assistant coach, the good cop to Brooks's taskmaster. And, at least from the portrayal here, Brooks was a taskmaster, working his kids well past exhaustion and even injury and not hesitating to cut them from the team in a fit of pre-Olympic triage. (The source of his obsessive determination comes to light gradually.) Russell, having mastered the clipped vowels of a Minnesota accent and looking completely of the period in plaid sport coats and helmet-like hair, never resorts to overplaying Brooks's psychological layers. He reveals them bit by bit, until finally Brooks is quietly overcome by the emotions he has been buttoning up for 20 years.
O'Connor, working from a script by Eric Guggenheim, is clearly fascinated by the social and political overtones of the Olympic face-off. During the opening credits, he creates a montage that starts with the American invasion of Cambodia and ends with Jimmy Carter's infamous "malaise" speech, hitting Watergate, the gas shortage and the death of Elvis along the way. The stage is set: America is clearly in need of some heroes. It's nicely set up, and he continues to juxtapose the team's training sessions with the pivotal moments of 1979, including the hostage crisis in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, events that not only provide context for the movie but eerily anticipate the salient issues of today. By the time Brooks and his boys arrive in Lake Placid, N.Y., the battle of the white ten-gallons against the Russki fur hats has taken on geopolitical dimensions.
To his everlasting credit, Brooks steadfastly ignored the Cold War baggage and media frenzy that attended his team's Olympic victory. To him, it was always a game. Ironically, O'Connor himself loses sight of this, pushing the political subtext to the point of overkill (a shot of the World Trade Center when the U.S. team plays the Soviet Union at Madison Square Garden just days before the Olympics is particularly gratuitous). His lack of faith that the audience will pick up on the not-so-subtle implications of the Olympic conflict extends to a saccharine voiceover at the end, when, in case viewers didn't get it, Russell intones forgettable pieties about believing in the dream.
But viewers, especially hockey fans, won't let such heavy-handedness distract them from the terrific performances and dizzying action that give "Miracle" its energy and crowd-pleasing appeal. (Most of the actors who play the hockey players are making their screen debuts here, including Billy Schneider, who plays his own father, Buzz, in the film.) Reproducing every bruise, blowup and body-check and getting right up on the ice and into the fray, the movie brings the audience back to 1980 with bone-crunching verisimilitude. When the sportscaster Al Michaels poses his famous rhetorical question, "Do you believe in miracles?," he might as well be referring to resurrection, as that February night is brought so uncannily back to life.