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Alex Stroup, editor

Miracle

Kurt Russell's role a gold medal performance

Thursday, February 5, 2004
by Alex Stroup, editor


© Buena Vista Distribution.

At first glance, you have to wonder who is supposed to see this movie. It is a movie about hockey, the fourth or fifth most popular sport in the United States. Played 24 years ago, it highlights an emotional triumph over an enemy that ceased to exist before next year's high school freshmen were born—so only people 35 and older will really remember it.

So color me pleasantly surprised when I overheard a twenty-something San Francisco professional woman saying afterwards, “I'm pumped up like I just saw Rocky for the first time.” Applause was common in my theater.

If any movie can be a word-of-mouth success, Miracle has a very good chance of pulling it off.

Opening this week, Miracle is about the American hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics held in Lake Placid, New York.

Though the advertising campaign misleadingly portrays a battle between the United States and the evil Russians (“They're Russian—they get shot if they smile” has to be turning off more people than it excites), director Gavin O'Connor instead has pointed his film in a higher direction.

Other than a passing reference to Russia's invasion of Afghanistan, there isn't enough shown of Russia or Russians for them to be the bad guys in this film. They are just the unstoppable force through which the scrappy American team must pass. Instead, this is a battle against malaise; against the depression and self-doubt that a decade of social, political, and economic setbacks produced.

O'Connor chose to run the opening credits against a backdrop that leads the viewer through the lowlights of the '70s, and initially, I wondered what all this had to do with a hockey game against the Russians.

But the entire mood and purpose of the movie is established during the credits, and O'Connor has the confidence to mostly leave it at that. Immediately, we're dropped into the ongoing mess that is American hockey in 1979.

Kurt Russell plays the very '70s-looking Herb Brooks, a successful college hockey coach who is hired to coach the Olympic hockey team. Perennial losers since 1960, star players wonder why they should give up a year making money in the NHL so that they can get slaughtered in the Olympics.

So, not having the best talent, Brooks has to find a new way to play the game. The Russian way of playing the game.

That is pretty much the rest of the movie: Brooks being the psychological genius to shape this group of almost faceless (and certainly background-less) players into a team. Brooks is the only person in the movie with whom you are given any opportunity to form an emotional attachment, and even then it isn't much. It is the great success of Miracle that it doesn't get you rooting for people—it gets you rooting for a team.

It is the very restraint that gives us the best Kurt Russell performance in a long time. Up to this point, his career performance has been 1993's Tombstone, where he was completely overshadowed by Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday. I think he tops it here; given the number of scenes in which Russell has to look stonily upon his players, or stonily watch game film, it would be very easy to rely on the bad hair and polyester outfits and give a very flat performance. He doesn't, though. His eyes are alive. Fine gradations in lips mean something. Without exposition, you know he is an intelligent man acting with a plan. That his intensity isn't because he's mean and dictatorial, but because he knows it is necessary, and he has taken the measure of his men and they can handle it.


© Buena Vista Distribution.

With Herb Brooks as a consultant on the film, it would be surprising if the character wasn't occasionally a little too perfect. Russell and O'Connor never overextend themselves, though, and by the time the closing credits inform that Brooks died shortly after principal photography, it had a true emotional impact on the audience.

The final wise decision made by O'Connor was in recognizing that this can't be a movie for hockey fans. While the rules of the game are never really explained, they are never really needed. Though at one point, my wife was wondering why in one game the tension was mounting at the end of the third quarter, not realizing that a hockey game only has three periods.

Other than a few highlights on the way to the Olympics, almost no real hockey is shown and it doesn't matter. This is not a movie about hockey, and O'Connor doesn't risk boring the non-hockey fans with repeated stretches of game. By the time we finally move to the key game of the Olympics, the audience is primed for it.

The result is a level of audience emotion I haven't seen in a long while, with applause after key plays and every goal (by the United States). It certainly doesn't hurt that I can't imagine hockey being filmed better. One reason I've never taken to hockey is that it involves a lot of anonymous-looking players moving in very precise, complex teamwork in a relatively small area and chasing a tiny puck. The filming challenges must be immense. Either you pull the camera back and play it more like a televised hockey game, or you do a lot of work on choreography, camera angles, cuts, and close-ups.

Fortunately, the latter is the route taken and while you might be surprised at how little actual hockey you are seeing because of the way it is interspersed with reaction shots, it is wonderfully done and you get the excitement, skill, and violence of hockey without actually having to watch much. The use of the original play-by-play calling by one of the best, Al Michaels, certainly doesn't hurt—and it is his famous cry of “Do you believe in miracles?” that gives the movie its name.

Unfortunately, one of the problems with a movie based on real life is that it isn't always organized for maximum dramatic impact. Something I had forgotten was that the United States didn't actually beat the Soviet Union for the gold medal. They played them in the semi-finals, requiring that the movie end with a buzz-killing voiceover explaining that they then went on to win another game for the gold.

But that's life.



MOVIE DETAILS

Miracle is a Walt Disney Pictures release

Wide theatrical release: February 6

Directed by Gavin O'COnnor.
Screenplay by Eric Guggenheim.

Rated PG

Running time: 135 minutes

Alex's Rating: 8 out of 10

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted “information junkie,” Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.

Click here to contact Alex.

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