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
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
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.
An urban legend/instant classic.
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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