Robin Clifford Laura Clifford
July 1979. The US Olympic hockey team won its last gold medal way back in 1960. Since then, the powerful Soviet team has dominated the Olympic gold for the sport. One of the ’60 US team members, Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), is selected to coach the 1980 US hockey team in Lake Placid and the man takes the task to heart. He doesn’t try to build the “best” team, though. Instead, he decides to build the “right” team and brings his talented boys to the XIII Olympic Games in “Miracle.”
This is a crowd pleaser of a film, if the packed sneak preview audience is any indication, which faithfully reprises the incredible story of a group of youngsters assembled to do Olympic battle against the Soviet juggernaut that had dominated the game for two decades. In true docu-drama fashion, we are introduced to the man with the vision, Herb Brooks, as he tells the members of the United States Olympic Committee just how he would go about building a competitive team to compete against the Soviets. Despite his single minded, unbending ways, Herb gets the job and has seven months to find, assemble, train and coach the American Olympic hockey team.
This begins a Cinderella story as Herb and his assistant coach, Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich), must weed through the hundreds of hopeful prospects to find the players that can compete effectively against the world’s best. In typical Brooks fashion, Herb eschews any and all intrusion in the selection process and dictates his player choices to the USOC. They, reluctantly, accept his choices.
Next, Herb must subject his newly assembled team to a rigorous training schedule. He begins by asking each player their name and the team they play for. Every one of the boys replies with his name and their college team. Herb listens then pushes them all – hard. Pretty soon, after repeatedly asking them the same question, one of the players finally answers the query correctly. They are not college players; they are the US Olympic Hockey Team! Thus united, Brooks settles down to making them the leanest, meanest fighting machine he can in the few short moths he has.
As the 1980 XIII Olympic Games draw near politics rears its ugly head with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There is discussion among the Olympic member countries over boycotting the summer games scheduled for Moscow. And it looks like there may be a similar boycott of the winter games by the Soviet Block. But, sports politics is more important to the Soviets, at that time, than real politics and the chance to dominate the Winter Olympics is too tempting to the Communists. They even agree to a match between the US and Soviet teams just before the Olympic Games are to begin. The powerful Russians soundly trounce the young American hockey team. Then, the real games begin and, well, history is made and a miracle happens.
While the reaction of the screening audience was extremely positive – they applauded wildly for each victory by the American team, almost as if they were seeing it all anew – I was less than taken by “Miracle.” It is a solid meat-and-potatoes venture that faithfully and predictably follows Herb Brooks and his players as they prepare to do battle in the Olympic hockey rink. But, aside from some insight into Herb’s single-mindedness and desire to build a championship team, there is little to surprise the viewer. It’s a film in three parts: Part One deals with the selection process to find just the “right” players, as Brooks calls his wards; Part Two is about the training and the creation of a “team”; Part Three is the Games.
Along the way are the clichéd checklist items that such a “true life story” must follow. There is the nice assistant coach (Emmerich) whose job it is to tell Herb that he’s pushing his players too hard. “I know what I’m doing,” is the expected reply from Coach Brooks. There is also the supportive wife, played by Patricia Clarkson, who is there to tell Herb that there is more to life than his hockey team – this is one of those unforgiving loyal wife roles that even Clarkson is unable to breathe new life into. There is also the expected moment when the boys realize that they are “family” and unite to become the United States Olympic Hockey Team.
There is attention to detail, like casting the American players to actually resemble the real Miracle team. Eddie Cahill, in particular, bears a strong resemblance to goalie Jim Craig and mouth’s the words, “Where’s my father?” following their gold medal victory against Finland. The wall of good luck letters and telegrams to the team has the feel of being taken from a real display. The little touches help flesh out the docu-drama but it all by the numbers.
This is an event film rather than an actor’s movie and, as such, the thesps involved are not given the chance to put any real dimension on their characters. Kurt Russell does a yeoman’s job as Herb Brooks and gives an earnest performance. Clarkson and Emmerich, as Patti Brooks and assistant coach Craig Patrick, are the unglamorous foils to Herb as they try to reign in the single-minded Brooks. The young cast of actors selected to play the US hockey team are a decent ensemble but none are given much of a chance to shine. The rest of the support cast is sparsely manned.
Techs are solid with well shot hockey sequences and accurate recreations of the games. There is little done to show Herb Brooks’s strategies but each game is handled well with rapid fire editing and believably choreographed action. Use of the actual voiceovers from the 1980 Olympic Games helps to anchor the games in reality.
“Miracle” is the kind of inspirational film that will appeal, mostly, to the hockey fans but its crowd-pleasing nature should carry it beyond just the fans. It’s by the numbers and clichéd, though, and I give it a B-.
Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell, "Dark Blue") lost his bid to be part of the 1960 U.S. Olympic hockey team, but it is 1979 and he believes he can coach a team to compete against the invincible Russians. In Lake Placid the following year, Herb Brooks will deliver a "Miracle."
In 1979, the U.S. was recovering from Vietnam and Watergate, suffering through gas shortages and about to be hit with the Iran hostage crisis. Twenty-five years later, we find ourselves in a similar climate facing terrorism, a war in Iraq and high unemployment rates. "Miracle" would seem to be perfectly timed, a boost for national pride when the country's international reputation has been tarnished. If only the film weren't such a by-the-numbers bore.
After 200 coaches turn down the Olympic job, Herb is delighted to get the offer. He immediately shows his unconventional methods by unilaterally choosing his team on the very first day players hit the tryout ice. When questioned by assistant coach Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich, "The Truman Show") about his unorthodox selections, Herb replies 'I'm not picking the best players. I'm picking the right ones.' Addressing his team like a dictator, Brooks informs them he will not be their friend and proceeds to play bad cop to Patrick's good.
Brooks proves adept at team building, however. He nips a personal grudge between players Jack O'Callahan (Michael Mantenuto) and Rob McClanahan (Nathan West, "Bring It On") in the bud, challenges goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill, Rachel's boy toy on TV's 'Friends') to greatness in the face of personal crisis and, most of all, imbeds a unique blend of global hockey strategizing and styling within the minds of his athletes. Mike Eruzione (Patrick O'Brien Demsey) becomes team captain after displaying the type of spirit Brooks is after.
Director Gavin O'Connor ("Tumbleweeds") makes an odd transition from indie land into commercial filmmaking, trotting out the tried and true rather than breathing any originality into this Rockyesque tale. He belabors Brooks's character traits, from his need to make up for lost Olympic glory to his incessant repetition of training techniques. The pre-Soviet game montage showcases the players like warriors preparing for battle, with praying and self reflection in the locker rooms. He even unironically includes a "Right Stuff/Armageddon" shot of the U.S. hockey team approaching the ice for the semi-final Soviet match. Yet, even with a blueprint, O'Connor and screenwriter Eric Guggenheim take a few missteps along the way. Ralph Cox (Kenneth Mitchel, "The Recruit") inherits Brook's distinction of being the last player cut from the team, yet the filmmakers fail to make this event resonate like an echo of the past. Mitchel has made the character stand out, yet once he's cut he is never mentioned again. Daniel Stolloff's ("Tumbleweeds") camera gets into the action but he favors shots of body checking and puck-stopping when more use of overhead shots could have revealed game strategy. During the first Olympic game, with mere minutes on the clock, editor John Gilroy ("Narc") cuts to more off ice reactions than on ice action. The filmmakers do do a good job recreating the political environment of the time, using a particularly apt Christmas speech by Jimmy Carter to comment upon their own story.
Sporting a haircut that looks like a hockey helmet and 70's plaid ensembles, Kurt Russell gives a stolid performance as the determined Brooks. He is distant, whether dealing with his players, staff or wife Patty, yet Russell imbues Brooks with the type of American can-do attitude that makes his character more admirable than exasperating. Patricia Clarkson ("Pieces of April"), in the Kathleen Quinlan role, is allowed to question her husband's motivations before acquiescing to his actions. Emmerich has an even more thankless role as the questioning assistant. Of the players, Cahill has the most charisma and Mitchel distinguishes himself from the pack. Mantenuto and Demsey hold their own with high profile characters.
The film concludes with Russell's narration, noting the irony of the so-called Dream Teams populated with professional athletes that become the norm after 1980's Olympic Games. We then learn that the real Brooks died just as production wrapped and though he never saw the film, he 'lived the dream.' You may feel like you've relived the whole thing too, as "Miracle" often feels like an endurance test, but there is no denying the uplifting nature of the event.
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