February, 2004, Drama

No, it's not a religious film, slipping in under the cover of Mel Gibson's soon-to-be-released excursion into Biblical criticism; it's the people at Disney, once again turning out a carefully modulated piece of cinematic feel good Americana. This time we're given the Mouseketeer version of America's gold medal win in hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics held at Lake Placid. Wearing a patriotism that borders on the jingoistic, Miracle manages to take an incomprehensible game and make it reasonably exciting, thanks largely to the quietly impressive performance of Kurt Russell and the sheer improbability of the actual event.

As in most "based on a true story" movies, (especially by this most calculating of studios) it's awfully hard to tell just how much of this tale is really accurate. America did win the gold, besting a superb Russian team in the Olympic semi-finals soon after they had been soundly defeated by the very same in New York City just days before they met on Olympic ice at Lake Placid. It was a come-from-behind victory, coached by Herb Brooks, an also-ran-player from a previous U.S. team. On these few verifiable facts, the movie builds a surprisingly interesting story, not by focusing on the players, but on their obsessive coach. Part Svengali, part Captain Bligh, and all Hollywood screen-star, Russell's Herb Brooks is a tough, no-nonsense coach, obsessed with winning, Vince Lombardi on skates. Brooks is recruited to oversee what everyone expected to be an inferior team, but by brutally training his squad of largely unknown college players, he managed the impossible, beating a previously undefeated Russian team that had dominated the sport for a decade and a half before that fateful night in upstate New York. In its broadest outlines, Miracle bears more than a little resemblance to Hoosiers, the tangy story of an Indiana high school basketball championship season in the early '50's which featured a slick performance by Gene Hackman as exactly the same kind of hard-driving coach who stressed team cooperation rather than individual performance. One wonders if the folks at Disney weren't seeking here to see if lightening really could strike twice…

Miracle tries much too hard to find historical significance in the game, using old news clips about the dreadful state of America's defeatist attitude at the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency, references to the Iranian hostage crisis, Russia's invasion of Afghanistan, etc., all designed to make Brook's obsession seem both justified and noble. Whatever his motivations, the results speak for themselves; the game remains one of American sports defining moments, and Russell's sturdy performance, coupled with some superbly orchestrated action on the ice makes this one an easy choice for arm-chair fans and hockey aficionados alike. 

Warning: this is a guy flick through and through; despite the presence of the wonderful Patricia Clarkson as Brooks' long suffering wife Patty, there isn't a moment of this movie that's wasted on anything other than the male fixation on winning a damn game. Significant others may wish to remain at home.

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