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BY Steven D. Greydanus
You might be a dyed-in-the-wool hockey fan, or you might be among the clueless majority who don't “know a blue line from a clothesline,” to quote sportscaster Al Michaels. It was his euphoric outburst in the final seconds of the 1980 Winter Olympics USA-Soviet hockey showdown — “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”— that gave the “Miracle on Ice” its enduring moniker and this film its title.
It doesn't matter where you stand on hockey. Miracle will make you want to stand up and cheer. The Miracle on Ice belonged to all of America, fans and non-fans alike. In Miracle, director Gavin O'Connor and first-time screen-writer Eric Guggenheim have crafted an accessible, meticulous, rousing tribute to the legendary game that should both please mainstream audiences and hold up to aficionado scrutiny.
The film does this, in large part, by telling the story more or less as it happened, without hyped-up drama or emotion, sentimentality or extraneous subplots. The bare facts of the story are drama enough. A tough coach forges a team of raw American college hockey players into an upstart Olympic team that goes up against the seasoned, indomitable Soviet squad and pulls off the upset of the century.
Miracle manages the neat trick of establishing this game as much more than a game without making it all about politics or turning the Soviet players into ideological bad guys. Like Seabiscuit, with its Depression-era tale of a scrappy underdog racehorse taking on the much-favored champion thorough-breds, Miracle establishes its setting in a time when American spirit is at a low ebb. People are ready to rally behind an underdog hero who can help them believe in comebacks and David-and-Goliath upsets.
Anchoring the film is Kurt Russell's expertly focused, restrained performance as Herb Brooks, NCAA coach and former Olympic hockey player. Brooks was the last player cut from the 1960 Olympic team — coincidentally, the last U.S. hockey team to win Olympic gold.
An effective opening title sequence establishes the political and cultural milieu — the Iranian hostage crisis, the gas lines, Jimmy Carter's “crisis of confidence” speech. With turmoil over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Carter threatening to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, Cold War tensions were at a head. Every America-vs.-the-Soviets competition at the winter games in Lake Placid was highly charged. Americans were in need of an infusion of confidence and cando spirit. As the film suggests, a triumph over the Russians might just lift the collective spirit of the entire nation.
Yet what were the odds of that? The Eastern-bloc hockey teams were the best in the world, and the Soviets were the clear favorites. Even the NHL all-star dream team couldn't stand up to the Soviet machine. For the Olympics, since amateur status still meant something in those days, Team USA would have to turn to raw college kids.
But Brooks has his own theories about why the Soviets win — and how they can be beaten.
His first principle is that, in hockey, teamwork and group synergy matter more than individual skill. An All-Star team is at an inherent disadvantage because the players, talented as they are individually, aren't playing the same game.
Like military training, Brooks’ program is designed to break down each player's sense of self-possession so a group of individuals can behave as a single unit with a single purpose: winning. This goal is all the more daunting because he is selecting players from rival colleges; their animosities toward one another are a major obstacle.
Part of Brooks’ unorthodox approach involves taking a rather antagonistic stance toward his recruits. He refocuses their resentment on him, thereby giving them common cause with one another. “I'm here to be your coach — not your friend,” he barks the first day. He holds himself aloof from his players, drives them obsessively past the point of exhaustion and threatens to bench or replace them at a moment's notice. Yet when he does have to cut a player, we see how incredibly difficult it is for him.
Brooks isn't an inspiring leader in the traditional mold. He isn't even entirely likeable or sympathetic, not necessarily the guy you'd like to have over to your house for dinner. What he is is the guy who can take recruits and train them to skate blade to blade with the best team in the world.
Certain that talent and experience favor the competition, Brooks emphasizes endurance, speed and creativity. “I can't promise you that you will be the best team,” he tells his players, “but you will be the best-conditioned team. That I can promise you.”
It's a strategy that will lead to a nerve-wracking pattern in the big games as the talented and experienced competition takes the lead early on. By the third (and final) period, though, as endurance becomes a factor, the strong, well-conditioned American players become increasingly competitive.
The uncompromising rigor of Brooks’ training regimen at times borders on cruelty or even goes over the edge. One grueling line drill following an embarrassing pre-Olympic defeat goes on for so long that it becomes an endurance test for the audience as well as the players. It's an approach that would be unendurable — except for the fact that it might be the one thing that could work.
Although countless Americans are rooting for Team USA to “beat the commies,” Brooks and the team keep the emphasis on hockey. In a memorable shot, we see Team USA walk out to the ice past a wall covered with countless telegrams and letters from well-wishers. Brooks does his best to keep the players insulated from public scrutiny. (The players later attested that they had no idea the extent to which the country was hanging on their every play).
Refreshingly, the film doesn't resort to having the Russians sneer and swagger or belittle our team, as many sports movies do. The Russians are simply the other team, the competition. We root for Team USA not because the other side is despicable but simply because it is our team. The David vs. Goliath subtext only adds to our affection for our guys.
Miracle is a celebration of the virtues on display in team sports at their best: sacrifice, teamwork, dedication and achievement. It is the best sort of true story, a story so satisfying that it couldn't have been made up or fudged. As Al Michaels put it at the medal ceremony, “No scriptwriter would ever dare.”
Content advisory: Recurring sports roughness and an on-ice brawl; limited minor profanity; a couple of vulgar expressions.