“Miracle” deserves credit for making us feel excitement over something whose outcome we already know. “The Miracle on Ice,” in which the U.S.A. hockey team beat the seemingly unstoppable Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics, is considered one of the greatest moments in sports history. We’ve heard the story, we’ve seen the clips.
Yet here we are, watching “Miracle,” which tells the story of the team and ends with a vivid recreation of the game itself, and sure enough, it’s a heart-swelling, barn-burner of a finale. Tears flow and spirits are raised — even though we knew it was going to happen, and even though the 90 minutes of film before it are less than spectacular. Such is the power of patriotism, under-dog heroics and a movie that knows when to cue the inspiring music.
Directed by Gavin O’Connor (“Tumbleweeds”) and written by Eric Guggenheim, the film begins with a montage of 1970s news events, most of them unpleasant (Watergate, gas shortage, disco, etc.), laying the groundwork for the notion that the 1980 hockey team was exactly the morale booster that a forlorn America needed. (See also “Seabiscuit.”)
Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), a university hockey coach in Minnesota with outrageous ’70s hair and outrageouser ’70s plaid pants, is chosen by the American Hockey Association to head up the 1980 Olympics squad. Like most movie coaches, he works his players relentlessly, has unorthodox methods, makes no wrong decisions, and neglects his family. (His wife is played by Patricia Clarkson, who is excellent, though her role, by definition, is small.)
The players are among the best college athletes available, with the usual assortment of problems. Minnesota’s O’Callahan (Michael Mantenuto) has an old grudge against Boston’s McClanahan (Nathan West). Goalie Jim Craig’s (Eddie Cahill) mother just died. Some of the others have trouble getting their egos in check and adjusting to the idea of playing for the team, not for themselves. All of them murmur at Herb’s techniques and look to assistant coach Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich) as an approachable emissary between them and the coach.
So it’s standard sports-flick fare for a while, not great, but not bad, perfectly watchable but not outstanding. The under-appreciated Kurt Russell is fantastic as Herb, conveying equal parts grit, determination and fatherly concern, often just with his eyes. The actors around him are solid, if not amazing.
Then the last act arrives, and all is forgiven. When the big game is played — condensed, of course, to fit into 30 movie minutes instead of 2 1/2 hours of real time — it is done without speeches or contrived moments; those are taken care of back in the locker room, before the face-off. The spectacle is the game itself, thrillingly re-created by O’Connor, his cinematographer Dan Stoloff and editor John Gilroy. Some of ABC’s Al Michaels’ actual play-by-play is used for extra authenticity.
The film could be faulted for boiling all of the world’s politics into one game — but I think that’s what the Olympics actually DO, and that hockey game in 1980 did it in particular. This is ultimately a pretty stellar re-visiting of an amazing moment in history.
B (2 hrs., 11 min.; )