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Miracle   B

Walt Disney Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Gavin O'Connor
Writer: Eric Guggenheim
Cast: Kurt Russell, Eddie Cahill, Michael Mantenuto, Patrick O'Brien Dempsey, Kenneth Mitchell, Nathan West, Noah Emmerich, Patricia Clarkson.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's one of the more prevalent chestnuts in sports: a Cinderella team makes a storybook run at the championship, and -- as if sensitive to the hackneyed sheen of it all -- someone invariably blurts out, "If you wrote this as a script, no one would buy it." That's disingenuous, because Hollywood does buy it, producing lovable underdog sagas at a rate of about three a year. The cliché demonstrates the differences between sports fantasy and sports reality, for try as they might, no contrived fiction can match the thrill of seeing it happen for real. Adam Vinatieri booting a 48-yard field goal that sent the unstoppable Rams stumbling to the showers. Scott Spiezio launching a three-run homer that turned an insurmountable lead into a house of cards. Buster Douglas saying, "You know something? Tyson ain't that tough." Such moments are rare -- far rarer than the movies would have us believe -- and the wondrous glow they produce simply can't be manufactured on a back lot.

Which is exactly what makes Miracle so intriguing. Its subject is an upset of Herculean proportions -- the U.S. Olympic hockey team beating the Soviet Union at the 1980 Games in Lake Placid -- which creates a considerable challenge to anyone trying to dramatize it. There's real magic to match up to; you can't turn this into another Mighty Ducks sequel and expect to survive (the story's been tackled before with less than successful results). Thankfully, Miracle never takes its pedigree for granted, and delivers the goods largely by focusing on the roots of the victory instead of the cheap emotional payoff that other sports films are so obsessed with.

The "Miracle on Ice" had its beginnings with Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), a Machiavellian coach who realized that talent alone couldn't take his team to the medal stand. Before he took over, the U.S. had performed miserably in international competition, routinely destroyed by eastern European squads with better programs and stronger players. At the apex stood the Soviets -- a literal Big Red Machine that had taken eight of the last nine Olympic championships without breaking a sweat. Their sole job was to win every game they played; hardened pros fell whimpering to their knees at the sight of them. Brooks didn't honestly expect to beat such a juggernaut -- no one did -- but he had a plan to at least make the Americans competitive.

Miracle centers primarily on that scheme, as the coach selects a gaggle of wide-eyed college kids and mercilessly forges them into something more than the sum of their parts. "I'm not looking for the best players, " he tells his bright-eyed assistant (Noah Emmerich), "I'm looking for the right ones." And once he has them, he's not afraid to push their buttons. The kids loathe him, but find common ground in their antipathy, which helps them set regional differences aside and come together as a unit. Director Gavin O'Connor places most of the onus on Russell, who responds with a nuanced, three-dimensional performance that does justice to Brooks' infuriating genius. With his loud clothes and clipped Midwestern accent, he seems almost comical... until you realize what kind of mind lies under that helmet hair. Russell never sugarcoats his portrayal, but neither does he lose the man's basic decency, and through him, Miracle admirably conveys the details of building this team.

Sadly, much of the material surrounding him bogs down in predictability. We've seen the same Rocky-esque training scenes far too often to get excited this time around, and the overall structure, while comforting, has simply been mined by too many (worse) films to hold our interest. The marvelous Patricia Clarkson has little to do as Brooks' long-suffering wife, trapped in another tedious "work vs. family" dynamic that never clicks despite her valiant efforts. A lot of it's inevitable -- you simply can't tell a story like this without embracing certain well-worn tropes -- but it still makes for some frustrating patches.

O'Connor, however, has a few tricks up his sleeve that minimizes Miracle's inescapable familiarity. He (along with DP Dan Stoloff) displays a brilliant knack for shooting on the ice, delivering terrific in-game scenes that hum with excitement. He also adroitly places the drama in its proper historical context, emphasizing the nation's pessimistic malaise, the enormity of our rivalry with the Soviets, and the need for something -- anything -- to bring us a little hope. Miracle's ad campaign is rife with jingoism ("plucky underdog" doesn't exactly fit our national character these days), but the film itself is surprisingly even-handed, staying true to the facts without resorting to stereotypes. Indeed, when the final showdown comes, O'Connor lays off the rubber hammer and simply makes the moment as authentic as he can. He even includes key elements (such as the benching of Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak midway through the match) that rarely appear in Hollywood feel-good stories, but do wonders at helping us understand how this wildly improbable dream came true.

That understanding keeps Miracle on a steady course, and prevents it from trivializing its subject matter. Everyone involved demonstrates such respect for Brooks, the team, and their accomplishments, that the bumps are passing concerns at best. So too are the politics, a treacherous minefield (both now and then) that the film navigates quite well. In the end, ideology shapes this story, but doesn't define it. Its heart lies in the simple, universal fact that once upon a time, 20 guys did something that no one believed they could do. The spark itself can never be duplicated, but Miracle gets a lot closer than we might have hoped.

Review published 02.06.2004.

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