Many Americans can remember where they were in 1980 when the USA's Olympic hockey team beat the USSR's and no wonder. It was a moment Sports Illustrated would go on to dub the single greatest sports moment of the 20th century. Not only does Miracle let you relive that glorious event it goes even further back chronicling not only the team's history but also America's mindset during the last decade of the Cold War. "Our psyche was fractured " director Gavin O'Connor explains. "We were a nation feeling really sorry for ourselves. Long gas lines. Inflation through the roof. The [Iranian] hostage crisis. No summer [Olympic] games. We were desperate for something to wrap our arms around anything to offer us hope. And then out of nowhere come these 20 kids." Specifically a U.S. Olympic hockey team handpicked by a very determined coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) from talented college players all over the country. The film focuses on Brooks the sacrifices he--and especially his family--makes his doubts and his dogged mission to turn the motley crew into champions using the Soviets' techniques and combining them with the best of the Canadian and European schools. He tells his players he will be their coach but not their friend and he works them to the bone until they emerge at Lake Placid a lean mean fighting machine with enough spirit to take on the world's most formidable hockey organization--and win.
Russell is a bit of an underdog himself; he's underrated but seemingly game for anything and he sinks his teeth into his portrayal of Brooks. Russell transforms himself--Minnesota accent and all--into the real-life hockey coach (who died right before Miracle's principal photography started) without much sentimentality or fanfare playing bad cop to Noah Emmerich's (Beyond Borders) good one as assistant coach Craig Patrick. Patricia Clarkson turns another fine performance as Brooks' wife Patti who never lets her husband forget what really matters even as his obsession threatens to take over their lives. The difficulty in casting Miracle however was finding talented hockey players who could also act. Filmmakers had to narrow some 4 000 contenders down to just 20 or so--an arduous process that proved worthwhile. The players all generally seem very natural in front of the camera and on the ice they really come alive. The only recognizable face belongs to Eddie Cahill best known for playing Rachel's younger boyfriend on TV's Friends as the team's star goalie Jim Craig. Because the character's mother died right before the Olympic trials it's definitely the most dramatic role of all the players and Cahill handles the job well.
A film like this has to maintain momentum if it's going to work--the narrative has to keep the audience engaged because they already know how the movie's going to end. Last year's Seabiscuit faced the same issue but thanks to its rich background stories and vibrant characters that film under the guidance of director Gary Ross drew audiences in and held their attention. Unfortunately Miracle doesn't pull this feat off nearly as well. Director O'Connor (Tumbleweeds) delivers flashes of poignancy especially between Brooks and his wife and the film tries hard not to slip into sappy "gee-coach-we're-a-family-now-and-we're-ready-to-win" moments. But it happens. If you've seen it once you've seen it a dozen times even in classic sports movie like Hoosiers that get away with it: the rah-rah speeches the tension as the team seems to fall apart and the ultimate victory of the underdogs who overcome great obstacles to become champions. Of course having said all that Miracle's payoff is still pretty spectacular. O'Connor and his team put you right there on the ice and you find yourself wrapped up in the game either for the first time or the hundredth cheering at each body check breakaway and goal. Miracle indeed captures a heroic moment in sports history.