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 bornso 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 Russianthey
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
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 peopleit 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
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
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 hurtand 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.
Miracle is a Walt Disney Pictures release
Wide theatrical release: February 6
Directed by Gavin O'COnnor.
Screenplay by Eric Guggenheim.
Running time: 135 minutes
Alex's Rating: 8 out of 10
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.
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