The outcome was the stuff of sports legend: during the 1980 Winter Olympic games, the United States hockey team went from being underdogs, almost entirely counted out, to winning the gold medal by defeating their arch-rivals, the previously unbeatable Soviet Union team. “Miracle” (IMDb listing) details the hardships, tragedies, and ferocious dedication it took coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) to assemble this jigsaw puzzle of a team, and the toll it took on his personal life.
“Miracle” is a PG-rated, Walt Disney production, about as clean as a filmgoing experience can get. And I mean that in the best possible way. Director Gavin O’Connor (“Tumbleweeds”) has taken the story of Brooks and the quest for the gold medal and laid it out perfectly, charting the rise of the man and his team with the efficiency and directness that the story deserves. The outcome of the tale might be known to all heading into the theater, yet O’Connor is still able to bleed tension out of this story, which is an amazing achievement. I knew the USA team beat the Soviets, yet my nails were chewed down to the bone by the end of the film.
Patterned from the success Disney had with the Dennis Quaid baseball drama, “The Rookie,“ “Miracle” is another example of a sports film that desires integrity and earns its goosebumps. Written by newbie Eric Guggenheim, the film is structured so that the thrust of the story isn’t the defeat of the Soviet Union, but how that defeat came to be. “Miracle” is a valentine to Coach Brooks, and a deserved one (Brooks was tragically killed last year in a car accident). Building up a team with kids from mainly Boston and Minnesota, and defying the odds by bringing these inexperienced men to the gold medal, Brooks is a figure ready for exploration. Guggenheim takes his time showing why Brooks was so fiercely dedicated to the sport, which interfered with his family life (Brook‘s wife is played by Patricia Clarkson), and his ability to reach out to his players in the fatherly way they wanted. Though faced with endless opportunities to cash in on sentimentality, the filmmakers often opt for subtlety and quiet awe instead. Brooks isn’t presented as a hero in a vacuous sense, but as a complicated man who achieved greatness through skill and strength of mind.
Assisting in the depiction of Coach Brooks is lead actor Kurt Russell, and if this performance doesn’t make Russell into the beloved icon of film acting that he should be, nothing will. Russell is a marvel in the role. He’s not afraid to underplay the character and allow the glory to fall on the shoulders of his co-stars, much like Brooks and his team. Russell also accurately portrays Brooks’s internal struggle as he tries to focus on his team while his family and personal dreams wait in the wings. He even pulls off the dreaded “Oh-Yaah” Minnesota accent along with the period hair and clothes with ease. Not an easy thing to do. Though we’re currently in the midst of the 2003 Oscar race, let me make this bold declaration: It’s only February, but Kurt Russell just might be giving the best performance to be seen this coming year.
O’Connor ices his puck just a little bit for the climax, which doesn’t quite set up the stakes involved in the big game like history has already done for the event. The last 30 minutes of the film’s 140 minute running time is devoted to the match up, and O’Connor turns on the heat full blast so the audience will feel every missed shot, body check, or Soviet goal. Guggenheim and O’Connor ham it up shamelessly in portraying the stoic evil of the Soviet team, whose coach is comically depicted as one step away from prison tattoos and puppy kicking. But it makes a point, and the filmmakers eventually settle back to enjoy the game like the world did in 1980. How much is based in fact or fiction is not at issue with “Miracle.” The film is about the moment of victory, and what a beautiful moment it was.
Filmfodder Grade: A-