You might be a dyed-in-the-wool hockey fan, or you might be among the clueless majority that "doesn’t know a blue line from a clothesline," to quote sportscaster Al Michaels, whose euphoric line "Do you believe in miracles?" in the final seconds of the immortal 1980 Winter Olympics US-Soviet hockey showdown gave the "Miracle on Ice" its enduring moniker, and this film its title.
You might remember those turbulent times like it was yesterday — the Iranian hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the long gas lines, Jimmy Carter’s "malaise" speech — or you might not remember much of anything before the first Bush presidency.
It doesn’t matter. Miracle will make you want to stand up and cheer. The Miracle on Ice belonged to all of America, hockey fans and non-fans alike. In Miracle, director Gavin O’Connor and first-time screenwriter Eric Guggenheim have crafted an accessible, meticulous, rousing tribute to the legendary game that should both please mainstream audiences and hold up to aficionado scrutiny.
The film does this, in large part, by telling the story more or less as it happened, without hyped-up drama or emotion, sentimentality, or extraneous subplots. The bare facts of the story are drama enough: A tough coach forges a team of raw American college hockey players into an upstart Olympic team that goes up against the seasoned, indomitable Soviet squad, and pulls off the upset of the century.
Miracle manages the neat trick of establishing this game as much more than a game without making it all about politics or turning the Soviet players into ideological bad guys. Like Seabiscuit, with its Depression-era tale of a scrappy underdog racehorse taking on the much-favored champion thoroughbreds, Miracle establishes its setting in a time when American spirit is at a low ebb and people are ready to rally behind an underdog hero who can help them believe in comebacks and David-and-Goliath upsets.
Events in the film seem generally grounded in reality, and the characters are rendered simply and sparingly, without unnecessary excursions into character development. The games, though shot with more dramatic camera work than is possible in a real game, faithfully follow the televised originals, even using Al Michaels’s original play-by-play.
Anchoring the film is Kurt Russell’s expertly focused, restrained performance as Herb Brooks, NCAA coach and former Olympic hockey player. Brooks was the last player cut from the 1960 Olympic team — coincidentally, the last US hockey team to win Olympic gold. Russell brings to the role a burden of unfinished business and emotional baggage, but also a clear-eyed, realistic grasp of the issues and the present situation.
Indie favorite Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April, The Station Agent) has a relatively thankless role as Brooks’s loved but somewhat neglected spouse. Clarkson brings an extra level of intelligence to her scenes, but they don’t much matter to the story.
For the players, the filmmakers cast hockey players who could act rather than actors who could play hockey. The result is a surprisingly persuasive portrait of a team of fairly anonymous young men caught up in heady, intimidating circumstances. A few of the players stand out as individuals, such as goalkeeper Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill), whose refusal to take Brooks’s psychological test tells Brooks as much about himself as if he had taken it. In the main, though, who they are as individuals isn’t as important as what they collectively accomplish.
An effective opening title sequence establishes the political and cultural milieu (again, the Iranian hostage crisis, the gas lines, etc.). "It is a crisis of confidence," says Jimmy Carter in his defining, disastrous speech, heard both in the title sequence and later in the film, "a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will."
With turmoil over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Carter threatening to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, Cold War tensions came to a head, and US-USSR competition at the winter games in Lake Placid was obviously highly charged. If America was in need of an infusion of confidence and can-do spirit, the film suggests, a triumph over the Russians might be just the ticket.
Yet what were the odds of that? The Eastern bloc hockey teams were the best in the world, and the Soviets were the clear favorites. Even the NHL All-Star dream team couldn’t stand up to the Soviet machine — and for the Olympics, since amateur status still meant something in those days, the US would have to turn to raw college kids.
But Brooks has his own theories about why the Soviets win, how they beat the All-Stars — "It wasn’t because you weren’t good enough," he says — and how they can be beaten.
His first principle is that, in hockey, teamwork and group synergy matters more than individual skill. An All-Star team is at an inherent disadvantage because the players, talented as they are individually, aren’t playing the same game.
Like military training, Brooks’s program is designed to break down each player’s sense of self-possession and self-orientation and reforge them into a single unit with a single purpose. This goal is all the more crucial because he is drawing on rival players from opposing Massachusetts and Minnesota pools, and their animosities are a major obstacle.
Part of Brooks’s unorthodox approach to this issue involves taking a rather antagonistic stance toward his recruits, focusing their resentment toward him, thereby giving them common cause with one another. "I’m here to be your coach — not your friend," he barks the first day. He holds himself aloof from his players, drives them obsessively past the point of exhaustion, and threatens to bench or replace them at a moment’s notice. Yet when he does have to cut a player, we see how incredibly difficult it is for him.
As this suggests, Brooks isn’t a traditional inspiring leader. He isn’t even entirely likable or sympathetic; he’s not necessarily the guy you’d like to have over to your house for dinner. What he is is the guy who can take these recruits and train them to skate blade to blade with the best team in the world.
Brooks has studied American and European styles of play and training, and crafted a new style of play that is a fusion of the best of all worlds. Even so, he knows that talent and experience favor the competition. Therefore, he emphasizes endurance, speed, and creativity. "I can’t promise you that you will be the best team," he tells his players, "but you will be the best conditioned team — that I can promise you."
It’s a strategy that will lead to a nerve-racking pattern in the big games, as the talented and experienced competition take early leads over the US, but the strong, well-conditioned US players become increasingly competitive as the clock winds down and endurance increasingly becomes a factor. "No one has ever trained hard enough to skate with the Russians for an entire game," Brooks says. "We are going to train hard enough."
The uncompromising rigor of Brooks’s training regimen, which includes grueling line drills (informally called "Herbies," I learn from an ESPN interview with original team members), at times borders on cruelty, or even goes over the edge. One drill, following an embarrassing pre-Olympic defeat, goes on for so long that it becomes an endurance test for the audience as well as the players. At some point in the drill, the rink management turns off the lights, but Herb keeps the players drilling in the dark (an incident confirmed by the players).
It’s an approach that would be unendurable, except for the fact that it might be the one thing that could work. We in the audience have the advantage of knowing the historical outcome; that the players stuck grimly with the program despite having little reason to believe they would win is a tribute both to their own determination and to Brooks’s leadership.
Although countless Americans are rooting for Team USA to "beat the Commies," Brooks and the team keep the emphasis on hockey. In a memorable shot, we see Team USA walk out to the ice past a wall covered with countless telegrams and letters from well-wishers; yet Brooks does his best to keep the players insulated from public scrutiny (the players later attested that they had no idea the extent to which the country was hanging on their every play).
At press conferences, Brooks steadfastly resists pressure from reporters to give them access to the players. When one reporter taunts him that he’s just trying to keep the spotlight on himself, Brooks wryly responds by having the next press conference done by the assistant coach!
Refreshingly, the film doesn’t resort to having the Russians sneer and swagger or belittle our team, as many sports movies (even the generally well-done The Rookie) do to get the audience rooting against them. There’s a lot of flag-waving in the movie, but the movie itself is not a flag-waving movie, not a jingoist or even a political film. The Russians are simply the other team, the competition. We root for Team USA not because the other players are despicable, but because they are David and the Soviets are Goliath, and also because they are our team, the same as Yankees or Red Sox fans.
After seeing the film, I caught an ESPN "Classic Big Ticket" re-broadcast of (much of) the original game, and was impressed by the film’s fidelity to historical fact. (I also benefitted from Jamie Fitzpatrick’s informative ProIceHockey.About.com essay.) In particular the film instilled in me an awe of what US goalkeeper Jim Craig accomplished in the big game; the Soviet forwards just hammered his net, outshooting the Americans by something like three to one, yet he was up to the challenge and kept his team in the game.
Miracle is about sacrifice, teamwork, dedication, and achievement. It is the best sort of true story, a story so striking and satisfying that it could only happen in real life. As Al Michaels put it at the medal ceremony, "No scriptwriter would ever dare."
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.