On February 22, 1980, the unthinkable happened. A rag tag group of college hockey players defeated a nearly invincible Russian juggernaut on their way to Olympic gold at Lake Placid. The victory rejuvenated and inspired a nation depressed by the Cold War, Vietnam leftovers, rising gas prices, and the Iran hostage crisis. And it is widely considered one of the greatest triumphs in sports history. Told through the perspective of head coach Herb Brooks, “Miracle” depicts the chain of events that brought the team together and the events that spawned the upset of the century. It shows the hard work, the determination, and the teamwork that were necessary to compete with the Russians. And although it struggles to reproduce the emotion of the moment, it emphatically reminds us that on one fateful Friday night, the impossible was possible.
The story begins and ends with Herb Brooks, a former Olympic athlete turned head coach. Leading the University of Minnesota’s hockey team to three national championships in less than 8 years, Brooks developed a reputation for being a demanding, but respectable winner. Selected by the U.S. Olympic committee as head coach of the men’s hockey team for the upcoming winter games in Lake Placid, Brooks was poised to settle an old score and fulfill a lifelong dream. With only months to prepare, the team was hand picked by Brooks without much need for tryouts. This caused quite a stir because many of the nation’s top players were not on the team. Furthermore, Brooks used unconventional methods like psychology tests to formulate the best lines. And by emphasizing the fundamentals of teamwork, speed, and endurance while infusing the European style of play, he reshaped American hockey all together.
Brooks was well aware that if the U.S. were to have any chance at winning a medal, they would have to go through the Russian national team, a legendary team that had won an unprecedented 4 consecutive gold medals. To compete, Brooks would have to do something unusual. In order to focus and strategize more effectively, he would have to limit his interaction with the team. “I’m your coach, not your friend,” he often told his players. And though difficult and distant, Brooks’ methods would prove to be the deciding factor, transforming the team into a mentally tough and physically fit group of guys. While the coach was viewed as the enemy, the players bonded with one another. And gradually, they became a family.
After months of preparation, the U.S. faced its first test in an early exhibition game against the Russians at Madison Square Garden, two weeks before the start of the Olympics. But there were no miracles to be found. In a humiliating defeat, the Americans fell 10-3, while losing one of their key players. Licking their wounds and struggling early in the tournament, the U.S. scrapped their way into a semifinal rematch. Little did anyone know that the stage was set for one of the greatest upsets of all time.
Sports Illustrated recently ranked the miracle as the single greatest moment in sports history for the 20th Century, although I must say that the gold medal victory against Finland would have to be a close second. After defeating the world’s greatest hockey team 4-3 in the semifinals, an emotional let down was inevitable. But Brooks wouldn’t have it. He inspired his players to be the best they could be. “You were born to be hockey players. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours” – his famous quote that the team took to heart. Without a doubt, “Miracle” was made with Herb Brooks as the focal point and mentor; however, tragically on August 17, 2003, Brooks passed away after a fatal automobile accident. He never got to see the final cut, but then again, why would he need to see it when he already lived it?
The film is reminiscent of the 1986 classic, “Hoosiers,” in which Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale, an unemployed high school basketball coach, travels to the small town of Hickory, Indiana to teach a group of boys the fundamentals of basketball. Both “Hoosiers” and “Miracle” stay focused on the trials and tribulations of the coach, rather than honing in on the quirks and backgrounds of the players. And both are excellent depictions of what great coaches do. We see Norman Dale and Herb Brooks fight off skepticism about their strategies, we see them go out of their way to teach their lessons, and we see the players developing a respect for them and a respect for each other that epitomizes teamwork. Personality-wise, the two characters are a little different. In “Miracle,” Kurt Russell’s Brooks is mysterious and distant with his players and we’re not really sure if he is overbearing by nature or if it is with a greater purpose in mind. Meanwhile, Hackman’s Dale is up front and honest and we know his courtside manner is an act to deflect attention and pressure away from his team. Either way, both styles are effective.
Just like Gene Hackman, Kurt Russell shines in the leading role. Cast as the tenacious, yet highly misunderstood coach, Russell embraces the character of Brooks in his behavior and most noticeably, his appearance. Whether it was the retro haircut, the Minnesota accent, or those prominent checkered pants, I was completely convinced Russell was someone other than Goldie’s hubbie. Moody, self-assured, and enigmatic, Russell turns in his finest performance since 1983’s “Silkwood.” Supporting Russell in comfortable roles are Patricia Clarkson and Noah Emmerich. Clarkson is less dramatic and compelling as Brooks’ wife than in previous roles, but her character represents the necessary opposite, bringing Brooks a touch of reality from time to time. And subtly, Noah Emmerich provides great rapport and friendship, much like his good-natured Marlon in “The Truman Show.” The rest of the cast is filled in by a group of no name, hunky actors who were boldly cast as hockey players first and actors second. – a move that only adds to the film’s believability.
Cheesy as it may sound, one of the most essential ingredients in a compelling sports movie is an emotional, involving score. I’m reminded of Jerry Goldsmith’s beautifully, uplifting work not only in “Hoosiers,” but my all time favorite, “Rudy.” And how could you forget Bill Conti’s fanfare, “Gonna Fly Now,” from “Rocky?” Or the understated romanticism felt in Randy Newman’s score for “The Natural?” All of these great sports films have one thing in common: a memorable score with repeatable themes. Inspirational stories rely heavily on them to move and influence an audience. At the right time, the themes can lift our spirits, move us to tears, or invite our cheers when the hero or heroes deliver the final knockout blow or score the game-winning goal. But this is one of the areas where “Miracle” falls short. The musical score from Mark Isham is flat and hollow, without a common theme or a distinguished finale. It’s the equivalent of watching Rocky Balboa training for the big fight without the heart pumping “Eye of the Tiger.”
Lacking enthusiasm, the film falters in the final confrontation between the Russians and the U.S. Part of the problem is that the Russians are built up as a bigger, faster competitor only to be shown as a dispassionate, generic group of hockey players. Another part of the problem is that the game choreography, which includes roughly 133 special effects shots, amounts to nothing more than an equipment montage. Cutting between extreme close ups and shots focusing exclusively on the puck and the ice, the scenes baffle and confuse us as to who, what, where, and when. And lastly, the film overdoes the play-by-play commentary. Certainly, it’s poignant and essential to include the inspirational phrase “Do you believe in miracles?,” but the film goes “overboard,” dictating the game to us instead of allowing us to get swept away in the emotion and the sound of the game.
Many sports films all too often fail because of the so-called anticlimax. And “Miracle” is no exception. The film has many great moments, but dare I say, it’s not melodramatic enough. To understand the magnitude of the miracle on ice, you had to live it, breathe it, and feel it. It was an experience as unscripted and unpredictable as they come. Although the filmmakers try valiantly to capture that feeling, we realize it’s an insurmountable task even with Kurt Russell’s heroic effort. I was only eight years old at the time of the miracle, but I remember watching the game with my father, being mesmerized by the aggressive goaltending of Jimmy Craig, and the improbable game-tying goal from Mike Eruzione. But most of all, I remember feeling complete joy, knowing that in life, there truly was such a thing as a miracle.