Top critical review
Tough love in Norway, Kurt Russell style
on June 1, 2004
"Miracle," a story of the 1980 gold-medal winning U.S. Hockey Team, rolls its opening credits over an impressive montage of the 15 years leading up the Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. - Vietnam, Watergate, the oil crisis, disco - that promises to reveal an understanding of how the team's unlikely upset of the Soviet Union delivered the nation an optimism lost during the Nixon/Ford/Carter eras.
But writer Eric Guggenheim and director Gavin O'Connor only occasionally revisit that theme, and just as "Remember The Titans" eventually morphed into a romp-n-stomp football picture - clothesline hits, last-minute heroics - "Miracle" is content to end as a goal-by-goal sports drama - the mystery and method of victory having been removed over time by seemingly weekly ESPN features - and as a character study of the team's coach, Herb Brooks, a stoic who funneled his creativity into weave plays.
There is a reason coach portraits are generally on the dry side. Coaches are generally dry men. And Brooks, played by Kurt Russell, was arid and driven - shunning the U.S. Olympic committee in crafting his team, relegating his assistant (Noah Emmerich) to a whistle-blowing stooge, applying mind tricks to his blue collar squad of players. Russell gets inside Brooks - his tics, body language and "Fargo" accent - to create a decent, winning man, repressed but ambitious, given to celebrating (or genuflecting or even smiling) in private. Brooks' moral rectitude makes for an education - "Miracle" is built for the family library - but the movie is workmanlike and stodgy, too. Were Patricia Clarkson not on hand as "the wife" to jazz up scenes - Clarkson raises domestic performance to a kind of art - Brooks would emerge as an anti-hero.
"Miracle" charts the maturity of Brooks' vision, which is to craft a team as the Russians would, on Communist principles - submerging the I for the team, group punishment for individual discretion, a fiendish devotion to sport. "I'm not looking for the best players," he says. "I'm looking for the right ones." Socialism fails as a government but not as an ethic of sports organization, and the Russians won four consecutive gold medals honing that theory. Brooks goes so far as to make his team unavailable for interviews at the Olympics, although the savior of those Winter Games, goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill), staved off one Russian slapshot after another, opening the door for the Americans to attack the Soviets with a similar offense and deserved at least as much credit as Brooks did, having played nearly every minute for seven months leading into the Lake Placid.
The movie's turning point arrives early: After a subpar performance in Norway, Brooks hauls his team back onto the ice and skates them to exhaustion. Director O'Connor takes a risk here, dragging the scene out beyond all cinematic purpose for a thematic one: Brooks yells "again" well after we would have expected "enough," and yet this gamble works, playing against expectations. Unlike "Seabiscuit," crisply edited into two-minute chunks yet shallow for the choice, Miracle" makes its stand as the lights go out and Brooks nods once more for the whistle. It is the best ten minutes of the film.
"Miracle" employs broadcaster Al Michaels, who announced the original game, to provide voiceover - it doesn't sound like play-by-play, but canned narration (the movie not-so-subtly shifts to his original "Do you believe in Miracles? Yes!" call near the end of the U.S. victory). The hockey scenes are fast and violent, but indistinct; about all we can really gather is that Craig made an enormous number of saves.