Nearly everyone already knows how ''Miracle'' ends, even though a generation has been born since the underdog U.S. hockey team upset the dominant Soviets during the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid.
The fact that director Gavin O'Connor still manages to build palpable suspense is a testament to how entertaining the film is.
O'Connor may seem an unlikely choice for a feel-good sports movie. He previously directed, co-wrote and co-starred in 1999's ''Tumble-weeds,'' a wonderful, small film about a mother who moves from town to town with her 12-year-old daughter after a series of bad relationships.
With that film, though, he achieved an elusive balance: He created poignant moments without making them mawkish. And, for the vast majority of the time, he does the same with ''Miracle.''
There's enough innate emotion and excitement in the ''Miracle on Ice'' story that O'Connor, working from a script by first-timer Eric Guggenheim, usually avoids amping it up.
Similarly, Kurt Russell doesn't overplay the role of Herb Brooks, the coach who handpicked a motley assortment of hockey players from Minnesota, Massachusetts and other cold places and taught them to play the game in a totally new way.
''I'll be your coach I won't be your friend,'' Brooks tells his players on day one.
He growls at them and makes them skate sprints until they puke when he thinks they've slacked against the Norwegian team. He toys with their minds in the locker room and lets them take the ice when even they think they're too hurt or tired to play.
It's a big, fiery role, but Russell finds enough nuance to avoid being a caricature. (The real Brooks, by the way, died in a car crash in August and never got to see the film.)
He and the movie are at their best, though, during the training scenes and the games themselves, which are shot and edited beautifully.
Early on, Brooks tells the players his plan for success: ''Flow and creativity that is what this team is all about, gentlemen.''
That seems to have been the same approach in shooting the thrilling hockey sequences. You feel as if you're being checked into the boards, as if the puck is flying at your face through the back of the net.
It helps enormously that the actors on the ice are actual hockey players, and not famous people pretending to play hockey. The only problem is that we get to know too few of them.
Buzz Schneider (played by his son, Billy, in a neat bit of casting) scores some of the biggest clutch goals, but we don't spend as much time with him as we do with charismatic Jack O'Callahan (Michael Mantenuto) and team captain Mike Eruzione (Patrick O'Brien Demsey). Eddie Cahill, a regular on ''Friends,'' gets the choice role of goalie Jim Craig, who was nearly impenetrable in front of the net.
In fairness, though, O'Connor has a lot to cram in, including historical perspective. The 1980 U.S. hockey team provided inspiration during gas shortages and the Iran hostage crisis, a time when the country was still healing from Watergate and Vietnam.
He also finds time for Brooks' personal life, such as it was, with the marvelous casting of Patricia Clarkson as the coach's wife, Patti. Clarkson could have merely played the sweet, supportive spouse, but as has become her trademark in films including ''Far From Heaven,'' ''The Station Agent'' and ''Pieces of April,'' for which she's earned an Oscar nomination she brings a warmth and a quirky wit that make the role complete.
''Miracle'' may sound like a glorified made-for-TV movie. And it may sound corny. But it's hard not to get caught up during Al Michaels' now-famous call ''Do you believe in miracles? Yes!'' and the deafening chants of ''USA! USA!''
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