Remember the Soviet Union? No? Well, it was this Evil Empire that was supposedly going to bury us right up to the moment when it came tumbling to the ground, like a certain wall in Berlin. Who knew how shaky those foundations were? Not me. Anyway, those of us who vividly recall when the whole world was divided between the red countries and the red-white-and-blue countries may get a special thrill out of Miracle, which takes us through one of the legendary battles of the Cold War. No one gave the U.S. Hockey Team a chance when they went up against the Russians in the semifinals of the 1980 Winter Olympics. They weren't even supposed to have made it to the medal round. But in what Sports Illustrated has called the greatest sports moment of the 20th century (apologies to Jesse Owens), Team USA rode out the clock with a 4-3 lead while ABC commentator Al Michaels asked "Do you believe in miracles?" and then answered his own question: "Yes!"
But was it a miracle? You may not think so after watching Miracle, which does everything it can to get audiences standing up and cheering "USA! USA!" but also makes sure to show us what this particular miracle was made of: hard work. Directed by Gavin O'Connor from a script by Eric Guggenheim, the movie's about the shaping of a team by a man who was either a genius or a fool, perhaps both. Herb Brooks, whom Kurt Russell plays with a head of hair that looks like an old hockey puck, got the Olympics job after two other coaches turned it down, and if Miracle is anywhere close to the way things were, it's a wonder he wasn't fired. "I'll be your coach. I won't be your friend," Russell's Brooks tells his young recruits early on. True to his word, he starts using psychological warfare to break them down and build them back up, this time as a team, not a group of individuals. When it's all over, some seven months in the future, they may hate him, but at least they'll be united in their hatred.
Russell does some wonderful work in Miracle. He looks almost comical in those plaid pants, those plaid jackets, that helmet hair. But something about the set of Russell's jaw suggests Brooks means business. Plus, he yells well, always helpful when you're playing a coach. "You don't have enough talent to win on talent alone," Brooks screams at the players after a lackluster effort in an exhibition match against the Norwegian national team. As punishment, he'd called them back onto the ice and made them do wind sprints while the crowd filed out of the arena. And they were still doing them when the building manager turned the lights off, Russell managing to find slightly different shadings every time he says "Again." Brooks has some tender moments with his long-suffering wife, whom Patricia Clarkson endows with just enough spunk to avoid sports-widow clichés. Otherwise, let's face it, the guy's mean, although not as mean as the real Brooks, according to former team captain Mike Eruzione.
Miracle doesn't individualize the players very much. Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill), the goalie, gets his own storyline, though not much of one. And a couple of others have a couple of moments. But the filmmakers seem to have bought Brooks' philosophy about there being no "I" in "team." Also, they went with hockey players who can act rather than actors who can play hockey, which works better on the ice than, say, in the locker room. The amateurishness pays off, however, contributing to the sense that these guys weren't meant for the spotlight. When they take the ice against the Russians, they seem half their opponents' size. Was this true? And get a load of that Russian coach. He looks like Dracula when he's down a couple of quarts. O'Connor splurges on the Russian game, devoting 20 minutes to its play-by-play. But, although it's authentic-seeming, the footage is choppy and too close to the action. Directors seldom realize that we also want the best seat in the house, not just the best spot on the ice.
Miracle provides the straight-ahead pleasure of an underdog taking it to an overdog; and that the underdog was the United States and the overdog was the Soviet Union will be of only historical interest to those who are now the age that the U.S. hockey players were in 1980. O'Connor tacks on one of those news-montage reels to the front of the movie -- a litany of woe stretching from Vietnam and Watergate to Love Canal and Three Mile Island. Clearly, we were bummed and needed to kick somebody's ass. But that's not, finally, what Miracle's all about. It's about motivating a team to win and figuring out just how far you can go to do that. With Bobby Knight back in the news, Brooks' coaching style may be more suspect than ever these days. But anyone who's ever played competitive sports will recognize his punishing blend of positive and negative feedback. When it works, you're a hero. When it doesn't, you're an asshole.
And Brooks? Well, let's just say there's no "I" in "miracle." Whoops, yes there is.