In all the grand history of the sports movie, it has rarely made much of a difference that everyone in the audience generally knows exactly how the Big Game, Big Fight or Big Match will turn out. It’s a cathartic, emotional experience, one where a talented filmmaker can take all the most familiar tropes of sports cinema, lead us toward a foregone conclusion and still construct something essentially satisfying. At its core, the sports movie is like its distaff, separated-at-birth twin, the romantic comedy: Both work fundamentally by offering few narrative surprises.
But the subject of Miracle—the improbable victory of the 1980 United States hockey team over the Soviet Union at the Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games—is something else entirely. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that—thanks to the socio-political weight it carried—the U.S./U.S.S.R. hockey contest was the most significant single American sporting event of the 20th century. Making a movie about that event into just another sports movie ... well, that’s just not good enough.
To their credit, director Gavin O’Connor and screenwriter Eric Guggenheim do a fairly decent job of setting up the historical context for Miracle—before settling into a comfortable sports movie formula. They begin with the vision of coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) to build a team specifically to counter the Soviets’ strengths. Driven by his history as the last man cut from the 1960 gold medal-winning U.S. team, Brooks takes 20 college kids with petty rivalries and uses six months of training time to turn them into a well-conditioned team where “the name on the front of the sweater is more important than the name on the back.”
That’s of particular importance in 1979, a time when America’s self-image was at rock-bottom. O’Connor’s opening credits sequence grabs headlines from the 1970s—Vietnam, Watergate, gas lines, Three Mile Island—to show a time of anxiety and national uncertainty that builds to the Iran hostage crisis and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Sounds of the ’70s creep through the soundtrack, from Blue Ã–yster Cult on the radio, to The Rockford Files on the television, to Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise” speech. When the U.S. team makes its way to the ice to play the Soviets—each player touching a wall full of good-luck telegrams before making a heroic, The Right Stuff-style entrance—there’s certainly a sense of what is at stake.
It’s a lot harder to get a sense that it’s bigger than any of the individuals involved. O’Connor and Guggenheim dutifully trot out squabbles between Brooks and his wife Patti (Patricia Clarkson) over whether he should be spending time on team meetings instead of picking up one of the kids from dance practice. They set up the insecurities of eventual heroes Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill) and Mike Eruzione (Patrick O’Brien Demsey). They go to the montage card for the team’s qualifying round victories, never quite making it clear how the team that barely tied Sweden suddenly turned into a juggernaut. Mark Isham’s score swells inspirationally at all the appropriate moments. Change the faces, and it could be just about any sports movie of the past 20 years.
To be fair to O’Connor, he probably made about as good a conventional sports movie as it’s possible to make out of this material. He shoots his game scenes with a speed and flow uncommon to hockey movies, even if the strategy talk is pitched at folks who wouldn’t know a blue line from bleu cheese. Russell has a few great moments, particularly near the climax, and the Big Game sequence pushes the buttons it’s supposed to push.
But it’s hard to shake the impression that a standard dramatization is exactly the wrong approach for such a pivotal piece of sports history, especially when there has already been at least one exceptional documentary account of the game. The sense of consequence, while present, feels strangely muted; even Al Michaels’ now-legendary play-by-play call sounds like something re-enacted in a studio over a cup of coffee. Miracle is a movie about them winning a Big Game. Anyone who remembers the time will realize that it gives too little attention to how 250 million Americans felt about the result ... we won.
MIRACLE, **.5, Kurt Russell, Noah Emmerich, Eddie Cahill, Rated PG