Posted: Monday, February 09, 2004

When I was growing up, my parents had a copy of a documentary (on video-disc, for those of you who remember back that far) about the 1980 Winter Olympic Hockey upset between a supposedly unbeatable Soviet team, and the upstart Americans. It was called Miracle of Lake Placid, and I never once put it on. I didn't care about documentaries and, growing up in Arizona, I sure didn't know anything about hockey. Today, however, after leaving the theater showing Disney's big-screen treatment of the event that kept the nation enthralled during that politically charged time, I just kept wishing that I'd taken the time to watch that old movie just once.

Miracle stars Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks, coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team, a group no one thought would go anywhere, but who ended up toppling a giant. The film, in typical sports movie fashion, follows the team from tryouts, through training, all the way up to the big game. We see the players first bristle at old rivalries, then come together as a team. We see them bond, first in their common hatred of the coach, a man driven to win by private demons, then by their respect and admiration for the man. We hear soaring music, letting us know that "this is more than just a game," and we get the player's eye view of all the action with beautifully done sports cinematography. All the parts add up to give the audience a very well-done version of just about every sports movie they've seen before.

The typicality, however, does not really harm a movie like this. Specifically because of it's subject matter, all the corny cliches work perfectly and come off feeling less corny than heartfelt. After all, it was more than just a game. The United States was going through a tumultuous time, and the movie does a superb job of anchoring the story to the era in which it played out. Frequent news clips, both pictures and voice, create an environment in which this tired old scenario can be played out one more time to rousing success. The fact that the movie takes no chances is tempered by the monumental story it has to tell. And the fact that the story is true, not loosely based, but true, goes a long way. With the Cold War reaching a crescendo, with a recession on, with the disillusionment of the American people growing at an alarming rate, we needed something to rally around, something to lift our spirits. What better than an underdog team who, against all odds, comes from behind to beat the greatest hockey players in the world - players who just happen to represent our sworn enemy, at the time? How else are you going to tell such a story, without the soaring music, the bonding team, the in-your-face action, and the drama of the final big game?

I appreciated very much that the acting in the film felt real. In at least one way, this movie wasn't typical. It does not put a big star at the head of the team. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that the principals were actual hockey players themselves. The point is that, except in the case of Russell, who is excellent, much of the acting doesn't feel like acting at all. It is as if we are getting a sneak peak at real players in real situations. Russell, who inhabits the part of Herb Brooks heart, soul, and wardrobe, is completely lost in his character. It was a Kurt Russell I'd never seen before, and, had this movie been released earlier, probably would've netted him an Oscar nomination.

The weak link in the acting chain has to come from Patricia Clarkson who plays Patty Brooks. After premiering with a similar role as Kevin Costner's wife in The Untouchables, Clarkson has had a varied career, most recently winning praise for The Station Agent. In this role, however, she has little to do other than look patiently at her driven coach of a husband and toss off thowaway bitter bits of dialogue like, "You can run me down for thinking you spend too much time on a simple game, but don't you ever criticize me for caring about you!" I was tired of her in her first scene and, as this is a two-and-a-half hour movie, there's more than enough of her to go around.

For a sports movie, even a solidly entertaining one, Miracle tends to get a little long. I'm sure there are some hockey fanatics out there who would disagree with me, but there were moments where I felt my attention wandering, nationalistic fervor or no. In the end, perhaps the true miracle of Miracle is that it was finally made. Twenty-five years after one of the most perfectly written upsets in history is a long time. But, if there was ever a time we needed to remember the good times, this would be it. For one shining moment, all the shame and hurt of the past twenty years was swept away, and America was heroic once again. Truly a Miracle. Grade: B+

Miracle is rated PG for some rough sports action, though there is nothing offensive present in this movie.

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