|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 18 May 2004|
The ads for this engrossing movie claimed that it was “the true story behind the greatest moment in sports history.” There are a lot of great moments in sports history, and it’s a mistake to declare any of the outstanding events “the greatest.” But what is shown in “Miracle” was deeply impressive, and there’s no doubt that it is, at least, ONE of the greatest sports moments: it’s the 1980 Winter Olympics victory by the USA hockey team over the team from the Soviet Union. The last time the US had won was in 1960; in all the Winter Olympics between, the Soviet team had been victorious.
The opening titles of the movie put the story in historical perspective, tracing the presidents (the film is very fair to Jimmy Carter), national and international events, and mentions the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Though a world war was not in the offing, tensions between the US and the USSR were strong and disturbing. The victory of the US hockey team was emblematic, a metaphor come to life, the miracle of the title. (In fact, the 1981 TV movie, with Karl Malden, about the same events was called “Miracle on Ice.”)
The weakness in the movie is unavoidable: we know how it ends. (But how many remember that the US team still had to beat Finland AFTER the Soviets to win the gold medals?) Therefore director Gavin O’Connor, who hadn’t done anything this interesting previously, has to focus on the development of the team—and on its amazing, remarkable coach Herb Brooks. Kurt Russell is perfectly cast as Brooks, and gives the performance of his lifetime. In the past, he’s only rarely even approached this level of credibility, this devotion to creating a character.
Eric Guggenheim’s script unavoidably follows a standard line for such films, and occasionally includes scenes that are all too standard, as in the brief disagreement between Brooks and his wife (the excellent Patricia Clarkson). But Guggenheim and O’Connor get very quickly into the core of the film, and of Brooks’ plans: he wants to coach the hockey team in a way that hasn’t been done before, to teach them a new style of playing—to match the Russians literally in their own game. For those of us who know nothing at all about hockey, some of this will seem both obvious (you mean they DIDN’T coach like this before) and mysterious, but it’s presented very credibly. You do not doubt Brooks’ intentions because we see his goals realized.
He initially selects 26 young men from those who’ve turned out to audition for the team, and tells those who are left that maybe the ones he rejected are the lucky ones. It’s the summer of 1979, only a relatively short time before the Winter Olympics of February, 1980—and the players have to learn there are no stars, that they are a team that has to function as a unit. Like basketball, hockey does tend to focus on star players, but that’s not what Brooks did.
We are introduced to the various team members; perhaps the outstanding actor in the group is Eddie Cahill as goalie Jim Craig; he’s very much in the moment and focused on his role, and is completely convincing. Other outstanding actors are Nathan West as Rob McClanahan, Eric Peter-Kaiser as Mark Johnson and Billy Schneider as his own father, Buzz. Though we do learn the personalities of the young men involved, the focus on the movie remains on Herb Brooks and on the team as a whole. Still, Cahill in particular gets some vivid moments.
The film was cast by first looking for those who resembled the real team members, then auditioning them as skaters and/or hockey players, and only then as actors. The result is that many of the cast never acted before, and haven’t since, but they’re completely believable here. O’Connor is clearly an expert at deriving good performances from potentially inadequate actors; I’ll be interested to see what he’ll do next.
Kurt Russell has been an actor since he was a child, though at one point he played baseball, hoping to make it to the majors. As a child actor, his goal was always to please the director, and this has carried over to his performances as an adult: all too often, he holds something back, not quite allowing Kurt Russell to disappear into the role. He wants to be liked for himself as well as the character, and because he is likeable, this usually is all that’s necessary. But he’s getting older, and clearly wiser: at no point does good ol’ Kurt peer out of the squinting eyes of Herb Brooks. Russell has a masterful relationship with the camera, precisely judging his performance to the scene and to the shot. He wears his hair not as good ol’ Kurt, but as Herb Brooks wore his—this may seem a small point, a tiny concession, but it’s what the role called for. But Russell also does something with his face: he holds his lips tighter, he narrows his eyes more, to the point that I wondered if he were in makeup.
The entire cast is excellent; Noah Emmerich plays assistant coach Craig Patrick in a particularly subtle and layered manner; we see him gradually come to accept Brooks’ unusual methods, even when he skates the team into exhaustion after an unenthusiastic showing in Norway. Emmerich has the face of a guy who would ordinarily be cast as a villain; his performance here is proof that he’s capable of much more.
O’Connor uses a more-than-realistic approach throughout; that is, the sound isn’t what you’d hear had you been at the many games the film depicts; it’s hyper-realistic, crisper, cleaner, and with particular details highlighted. Sound designer Elliott Nokes and sound technician Rob Nokes not only deserve great praise for their clean, imaginative work, they get it: one of the several documentaries on this two-disc set focuses intelligently on the sound, demonstrating by example some of the many types of tracks the film used, and how they were woven together. This kind of documentary should turn up as supplemental DVD material much more often than it does.
“Miracle” was shot in Canada, which resulted in some criticism from various quarters. Why couldn’t this all-American movie, that extols an American Olympics team, have been shot in the United States? That’s a good question, and the only real answer is budget. But it doesn’t affect the movie as you’re watching it; to his credit, O’Connor does not over-emphasize the rah-rah-for-our-side aspect of the story, which speaks for itself.
Mark Isham’s score is balanced with the movie; in one of the several documentaries, he explains that at first, he used a “Mozart orchestra,” of mostly strings; as the story advanced, he scaled up to a “Tchaikovsky orchestra” with more brass and woodwinds. And for the big USA-USSR hockey game, he launched into full “Wagner orchestra” mode, with a huge number of musicians. Isham (pr. ee-sham, by the way) is one of the best contemporary composers, and his score for “Miracle” is available on CD.
In a story of triumph, hope and glory, there had to be some poignancy—and it turned up in real life, not in the film. Herb Brooks died while the film was in production, but there is some footage of him discussing the movie with Russell, O’Connor and others of the filmmakers. Not only do you get to see how precisely Russell played the man, but there he is, right before your eyes—the man who worked this miracle. As an end credit says, he didn’t see the movie, but he lived it.