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A Miracle of a Sports Film


by Chris Bellamy

Walt Disney Pictures
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Written by Eric Guggenheim
Produced by Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray and Greg O’Connor
Starring Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Eddie Cahill, Noah Emmerich, Michael Mantenuto, Patrick Demsey and Sean McCann
Rated PG

(out of four)

It’s one of the most famous catchphrases in modern American culture, and probably the most significant in the history of American sport: “Do you believe in miracles?”

Al Michaels uttered those words 24 years ago, when the U.S. National Hockey Team— a group of marginally talented, relatively inexperienced young 20-somethings— knocked off the unbeatable Soviet Union and went on to win the Gold Medal at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.

It was a feat so impractical, so impossible, that if you ever saw it in a movie, you’d brush if off and say to yourself, “No way that could ever happen in real life. What a piece of Hollywood fluff.”

But it did happen. And it stands as the defining moment in American Olympic history.

Finally, their story— particularly the story of Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), the coach who orchestrated the team’s improbable run— has made it to the big screen.

I can’t be absolutely positive how true the script is to the actual behind-the-scenes story of Team USA, but the story seen in “Miracle” is believable and interesting. Brooks, then the head coach of the University of Minnesota hockey team, sets out to do the improbable, which for American hockey meant qualifying for any medal at all. He assembles his team and begins training seven months before the opening of the Winter Games. Over the course of those seven months, we see the players training harder than they ever had, as Brooks promises them they will be the “best conditioned team out there.” We see in-team fighting, struggles, arguments, locker room controversy and of course, that old cliché, “becoming a team.”

But that’s only the backdrop. This is not meant to be a film about the rigors of playing international hockey, and for the most part it isn’t, though that aspect is strong. “Miracle” also isn’t a movie loaded with clichés, which is a miracle in and of itself.

With material like this, especially when it’s produced by Disney, the filmmakers could have made this the cheesiest, most disgustingly inspirational sports movie of them all. But they didn’t. They don’t play up its cliches, its heartwarming, uplifting moments. Sure, there are a fair share of fairly cliched lines and subplots, but they aren’t overdone and they don’t get in the way.

Even when Brooks gives his locker-room speech before the big game with the Soviets, he keeps it low-key, therefore keeping the dramatic tension that a more melodramatic speech would have ruined.

Like pretty much all good sports movies, “Miracle” is anchored by strong characters. Russell finds the right note as coach Brooks and does a fine job with a Minnesota accent. The always-reliable Patricia Clarkson is loveable as Brooks’ wife. And despite a glut of hockey players who all get screen time, the script manages to find time to turn the main players into well-rounded characters.

But what really sets this film apart is the on-ice action. In so many sports movies, the action looks so amateurish and just plain fake that it’s hard to do really get involved in the action. What we have in “Miracle,” however, is expertly choreographed hockey action, some of the best sports action ever put on film. That is especially evident during the pivotal medal round against Russia.

A friend of mine suggested that if they wanted to make a good movie out of it, they ought to just show the actual hockey game in its entirety.

Indeed, how do you recapture something so historically and culturally significant and do it justice on the silver screen? Can it even be done?

Surprisingly, yes.

The film uses Al Michaels’ actual game commentary and uses it over the intense game action, making it seem as though you’re actually watching a real game— except much closer. Even though we all know the game’s outcome, director Gavin O’Connor keeps the tension alive until the final buzzer and Michaels’ now-legendary one-liner.

Making a story like the “Miracle on Ice” actually believable— not to mention exciting— was a long shot. But somehow, despite Disney and despite the PG rating, they pulled it off. Yes, I do believe in miracles.

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