By Admin | February 7, 2004

When Herb Brooks, architect of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that won the gold medal in Lake Placid, tragically died in a car accident late last year, he took with him the secret of how he was able to transform himself and his rag-tag team of amateur players into a gold-medal winning team at the 1980 Olympics. Did Brooks really have the magic ingredient for beating the Russians or did he, and his players, just catch lightning in a bottle?
Life wasn’t easy for Brooks following the triumph in 1980 as the expectations created by the Miracle on Ice followed him for the rest of his career. Considered more a teacher of the game than a great coach, Brooks enjoyed only modest success when he went to the NHL and, in recent years, Brooks had been toiling as an anonymous assistant coach with several NHL teams, the glow of the 1980 Olympics long since faded. It was the same story with the players on the team who, with a few minor exceptions, never enjoyed big careers in the NHL and largely faded into obscurity. For Brooks and the players, the 1980 triumph represented a high-point in their lives that everything else would be compared to. It must be a lot of pressure to have people always expect miracles from you.
The new film “Miracle” comes at the perfect time – almost twenty-five years after the magical event in 1980 – as we’re no longer as tired of hearing about the story of the U.S. Olympic hockey team as we were back in the 1980s when the media beat the story to death. Back in 1980, the film reminds us, hockey was a third-world sport in America, a country that seemed hopelessly unable to develop good young hockey players who were more interested in playing baseball and football. Today, in 2004, hockey’s still on the fourth or fifth page of the sports section but America is now, arguably, the most powerful hockey nation in the world. That’s the legacy of the 1980 Olympics.
Kurt Russell plays Herb Brooks in “Miracle” and it’s a very good performance because it seems like a really honest portrayal of the man who was, according to his players, not the easiest man to get along with. Russell portrays a coach who’s scared of failure, scared of the Russians world dominance in hockey and scared to get too close to the players he will grow to love. Russell really vanishes into the body of Brooks, and not just because of the fake chin and nose but because he creates a real character – a man who obsesses over game footage and strategies and really wants to emulate the Russian-style of play onto the nondescript group of players he has to work with. Russell, who has a habit of playing Kurt Russell in most of his films, is very believable as an intense hockey coach, and a teacher, and his performance is all the more poignant because of Brooks’ untimely death.
One of the problems with sports films, particularly hockey films, is the difficulty of establishing lots of characters and of creating believable hockey scenes which no film has ever really done a good job of, not even the hilarious “Slap Shot” which was certainly not a serious hockey film. Director Gavin O’Connor makes a wise choice to concentrate on several characters throughout the film – the names we vaguely remember from 1980 – and focuses on their relationship with Brooks and the journey they take. The problem with hockey scenes in movies is that hockey’s a game of flow and rhythm whereas most hockey films only choose to show fights or spectacular goals being scored. Because “Miracle” has so many hockey scenes, we never know what’s going to happen next – who’s going to score – and, much like “Ali” did with its great boxing scenes, the film uses the hockey scenes to create stories within stories.
What about the gold medal match with the Russians? Ah, but that might be the biggest surprise in “Miracle” and of Brooks himself. People forget that the game against Russia was the semi-final game. The gold medal game was against Finland and, to be honest, the film doesn’t do a very good job of showing how Brooks was able to bring the players down from the incredible high of the victory over Russia and get them focused for the next game. This must’ve been quite a feat given how excited the players were after the win over Russia. It’s not as if the Americans hated the Fins.
“Miracle” is predictable in that we know much of the story and the underdog sports movie genre itself which “Miracle” understands and follows to a tee. Yes, but the fact is that the players who comprised the 1980 team were a bunch of unknown college kids who weren’t nearly as talented as the Russians or any other hockey nation for that matter. We know we’ll see scenes of Russell yelling at the young players and scenes where the players drink and stay out late, and the scene where the underdogs doubt themselves only to have Russell deliver an impassioned speech that will make the players believe in themselves. We know all that, and maybe we even feel like we’ve seen this film a hundred times before, but “Miracle” is powerful in its recreation of a magical time and place and it really does make us believe that miracles are possible.
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