I've been ready to see a good hockey movie ever since The Mighty Ducks (don't laugh, I like it). Mystery, Alaska was interesting, but never quite did it for me. So when an opportunity to see Disney's latest hockey homage Miracle came up, I immediately signed on, even though the print they were showing three weeks before release wasn't quite a final version. The title card before its opening stated the usual disclaimer about unfinished music and effects, but aside from absent closing credits, I didn't notice anything missing. Who cares about key grips anyway?
Miracle is the true story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team and their victory over an undefeated and seemingly invincible Soviet squad. For a country in the midst of the Cold War, victory was seen as a national symbol. However, even though the event itself was surrounded with patriotic fervor, it is interesting that Miracle never becomes a patriotic film. Instead, it is first and foremost a hockey movie and one well worth seeing.
Director Gavin O'Connor has put Miracle's focus on team coach Herb Brooks, the man most often credited with bringing the U.S. victory in what later became known as "The Miracle on Ice". A successful college hockey coach, Brooks is brought into an utterly failed U.S. Hockey program looking for direction. With an impassioned but succinct speech during his interview for their Olympic coaching position, the hard nosed Brooks gives them just that. His challenge is to defeat the greatest hockey team in the world with a group that doesn't stand a chance. The Russians have dominated world hockey for fifteen years and are at the peak of their game. Brooks's team is composed of amateurs and undisciplined college kids who seem more interested in settling old rivalries with one another than playing Olympic hockey.
But it is the historical and political background that O'Connor weaves around his film that makes Miracle so unique among sports movies. Opening with a compelling credits sequence highlighting historical events leading up to Herb's hockey miracle, O'Connor makes it a point to show us just where the country was headed in 1979; and it wasn't pretty. The entire film is thereafter infused with old news stories, presidential speeches, and historical references (often playing in the background of each scene) to keep us apprised of where the world is headed. The beauty of this is that it doesn't intrude on the pure hockey Brooks is trying to chisel into the head of his players. No overt gestures of patriotism or nationalized grandstanding. Brooks himself isn't interested in any of that, even if the world outside is clamoring for him to beat "the commies". He just wants to kick the ass of the best team in the world, and that team happens to be Soviet. At the same time, he is aware of the impact his team could have. He may exist in his own hockey world, but he, and we understand what it is that made this so desperately important to the rest of America.
Miracle is a movie for people who "get" hockey. Hockey is the ultimate team sport. It's a game of grace, speed, and passion where more than in any other competition, team chemistry matters most; not the efforts or talent of any one individual. Does that make Miracle inaccessible to anyone but the purest hockey fan? Maybe. It's shot with an almost disregard for the uninitiated. O'Connor's focus is primarily on the nuances of preparing for the game itself, with little attention paid to the usual sport cliché's of last minute scoring or slow motion, down ice drama.
In fact, not much of the film is actually spent watching Herb's team compete, until with thirty minutes left of film to go we reach the moment for which the movie is named. From there, we spend the rest of our seat time basking in the glory of one of the single most miraculous and significant games ever played in any sport in any era. The "Miracle" itself is filmed with grit and detail, with a look that screams of the decade in which it takes place. Miracle even goes so far as to use what sounds like it must be the original Al Michaels play by play from the event, as well as 1980's footage of commentators Michaels and Dryden on television setting the stage for America. This is a historical movie obsessed with detail and the pure beauty of playing hockey.
Kurt Russell is solid as terse coach Herb Brooks, right down to his historically accurate bad hair and nearly Canadian accent. What he doesn't do is overplay his character into another rampaging uber-coach, stomping around and flinging agitation across the screen. He does such a great job of keeping Brooks outwardly calculated and controlled, that emotion flies like daggers from his eyes as compensation. Inside Russell's Herb is a raging ball of fear, insecurity, and passion; outwardly he's a stoic, demanding unflinching excellence and self-sacrifice from his players. Players, who I might add, serve mainly as backdrop off of which Russell can react. That's almost fitting with Brooks's intensive emphasis on team first mentality. With a couple of slight exceptions (like goalie Jim Craig) the team is mostly a sea of faces, none more notable than the rest except when they come together as a cohesive whole on the ice.
In those final moments, when the Soviets seem on the edge of defeat, there's a beautiful shot in which one of Herb's players faces off at center ice yet again against Russia's best. He stares him down, like John Wayne glaring at the screen in one of his old Westerns, like the Lone Ranger mounting up to ride with Tonto. The camera slows as the puck drops, to give us a stunning look at two men simply staring each other down at center ice. A battle of wills and spirit in which desire and passion managed to win out over talent. That's what Miracle ends up being about. Don't mistake it for patriotic saber rattling. That's its historical context and an important one. But the story of Miracle has something far more poignant and interesting to say about a real group of people and the man who forged them into iron.
Miracle is sure to be utterly embraced by hockey fans, but I remain uncertain whether or not it'll prove a pleaser to the general movie crowd. The game footage itself is fast paced and unforgiving. It doesn't slow down to let those unfamiliar with the game catch up. Yet there's something compelling about Brooks determined story, which, even if you don't like hockey ought to be enough for Miracle's triumphant message to make sense.