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Arts & Culture/Reel Dealz
Date Posted:

by:Edwardo Jackson

MOVIE BIASES: My mom liked it and she's not a hockey fan.
MAJOR PLAYERS: Kurt Russell (Dark Blue), Eddie Cahill (TV's "Friends"), writer Eric Guggenheim, and director Gavin O'Connor.

Every player has that one coach they just hate. Mine was a JV basketball coach/Army reservist who, when not being called off to the Gulf War, was making teenaged boys cry from ten minute wall sits, line running until we puked, and constant attacks on our manhood to see if we even had any. What my marginally talented, adolescently unstable mind didn't realize was that he was trying to take a ragtag team of individuals and mold them into a team, a team that WINS. Although we failed miserably (and consistently), a similar, more famous story plays out in "Miracle," the quintessentially American, Horatio Alger-esque real life account of how stern taskmaster Coach Herb Brooks molded a group of young individualistic underdogs into an Olympic gold medal winning team that pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of team sports.

If you don't know the basics of this story, you're un-American - or just plain young. Setting time and place through grim newsreel footage, America in the '70s was faltering under a siege of oil crises, Communism, Watergate, and ugly brown plaid pants. Having narrowly missed out on US Olympic gold back in 1960 - the last time anyone but the mighty, mighty Soviet Union had won such a medal - a focused and autocratic Herb Brooks (Russell) faces the task of smelting a group of collegiate all-star rivals that can't stand each other into a fearless, cohesive enough unit capable of beating one of the best teams in hockey history. Employing grueling mental and physical challenges to whittle a 26 member squad into not just a 20 person team but a family, Brooks' unrenowned Team USA squares off against the vaunted CCCP in the 1980 Olympic Medal Round semifinal - and beats them - en route to a gold medal that redeems a nation culturally and spiritually.

With that game against Russia forever known as "The Miracle on Ice," this movie should be known as "The Miracle on Film." Every element of this film is pure sports cinema perfection. Based off an outstanding script from newcomer Eric Guggenheim, first time studio feature director Gavin O'Connor makes as an auspicious debut as I have seen in some time. With subject matter that could have easily veered into earnest afterschool special or movie of the week (even though the laser sharp script would never allow it), O'Connor wonderfully builds up the formidable social and personal stories that went into making that event more than just a hockey game. Never before have the primary colors of our red, white, and blue been filmed so lovingly or carried so much weight, thanks to O'Connor's carefully threaded undercurrent of social necessity throughout. The editing and shot selection are breathtaking, not only raising the stakes with appropriately crisp cutting (one second too short, it's MTV; one second too long, it's Lifetime), but also elevating and accentuating the visceral speed, grit, and poetic grace of hockey. Without a doubt, music vet Mark Isham (Quiz Show, A River Runs Through It) delivers the best musical score of his career. Featuring precise, tension-building militaristic drum rolls and a triumphant panorama of dramatic music, Isham's score IS another lead character, the twenty-first man on the team, the sixth player on the ice. Sure the director builds tension better than anyone I've ever seen in this genre, but he is infinitely helped out by this extra "character" of Isham's.

Like everything else, the acting is top notch. As by design, Eddie Cahill leads a flotilla of lesser-known thesps as team members who fully, wholeheartedly buy into the familial and patriotic discipline of Brooks. They so effectively play their parts that aside from the emphasis upon Cahill's goalie Jim Craig coping with the recent loss of his mother, the well-crafted individual stories blur like watercolors into a fully realized red, white, and blue portrait of a TEAM. Having endured a smorgasbord of Brooks' mental and physical tests alongside them (including the classic, pissed-off coach maneuver of launching a full-scale practice AFTER a game), you're so invested that you gasp and cheer with every shot taken and every save made.

All of this is in the name of Kurt Russell's Brooks, a tough-minded, singularly focused hockey despot who in having "a reason for everything he does" isn't "looking for the best players, just the right ones." After a string of American international embarrassments that preceded him, Brooks wants to beat the Soviets so bad at their own game that he asks permission from his wife to be the jerk he knows he needs to be in order to lead this team to victory. Sporting a flinty Midwestern accent, a perpetually squinty-eyed glare, and the unwavering resolve natural to savvy motivators of men, Russell injects the same fear into the audience as he does his players. If the Russians' "main weapon is intimidation," then Team USA "cannot be a team of common men;" Brooks would rather be feared by his own team than to have them fear an opponent. After a punishing Brooks' practice, "Who do you play for?" takes on a whole new meaning.

And it works. It all works. Sure this is a classic, inspirational Disney movie that harkens us back to simpler time when good was good and (the Axis of?) evil was the Soviet Union. No doubt that "Miracle" is an unabashedly jingoistic, feelgood flick chock full of music-enhanced moments and heavy lines like "Great moments are borne from great opportunity." It's a sports film - ready to ascend to the pantheon of the greatest sports films of all time. I have heard it said that sports movies, when done well, are the male tearjerkers of our time. Although I didn't cry or anything, the lady next to me sure did - before we even got to the Big Game. I can understand her emotion. I'm not the biggest patriot but it is easy to be caught up in it all. The Miracle on Ice was so big, so unfathomable, it was like the Michael Jordan Bulls getting beat for the NBA title by the Clippers - blindfolded, one arm tied behind their backs, in wheelchairs. That night they conquered their own fears, they were the Machine, and, best of all, they did it as a FAMILY.

Just like the game itself, this is more than a hockey movie - it's a rousing slice of life. Heck, it turned my mom into a hockey fan and, finally, got me to see exactly how it was that my most hated coach was trying to "just win, baby." Despite a few typical Russian clichés and (time-specific) product placement, "Miracle" ultimately pays off because, just like the team it follows, you have worked so hard and invested so much into it. And if such hard work breeds such stunning team success, then "Miracle" will happily be that one coach you love to hate.

@@@@ REELS
An urban legend/instant classic.

Like what you read? Agree/disagree with The Reel Deal? Think he's talkin' out his...HUSH YO' MOUF! (I'm only talkin' about The Reel Deal!) Email him at ReelReviewz@aol.com!

Edwardo Jackson is the author of the novels EVER AFTER and NEVA HAFTA, (Villard/Random House), a writer for UrbanFilmPremiere.com, and an LA-based screenwriter. Visit his website at www.edwardojackson.com


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