It's early in 1979 and the upcoming 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York are fast approaching. For years, the Russian hockey team has rolled through opponents like a buzz saw, destroying opponents left and right. The United States Olympic Committee is trying to do something about that epic winning streak, hiring a former player turned college coach at Minnesota, Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), to put together a winning team that can make some noise at the upcoming Olympic games. Brooks takes the job but intends to go about putting the team together in his way, regardless of what the U.S.O.C. really thinks or wants. With little expected of the American team, Brooks decides on his team at tryouts and goes to work. His methods are tough, his players bristling at times at his authority, but Brooks isn't interested in making friends. He's interested in making this American hockey team something special, a team that could be on a collision course with the Russian powerhouse.
Whether you're a hockey fan, a sports fan, or maybe even hate sports, this is a story that resonates. Audiences typically eat up underdog stories, and this is one of the all-time greats in U.S. sports history. Read about the true story HERE with more details. I've never been a huge hockey fan, and that's a big reason it took me most of 10 years to actually watch this. It was worth the wait, director Gavin O'Connor's film more than delivering the goods. 'Miracle' covers a lot of ground from Brooks' hiring to his choosing the team, their training to the actual Olympic games. Unless you've been under a rock for years, you no doubt know how the movie will end, but O'Connor's film does a good job keeping us interested (knowledge of the finale or not), building that momentum right up until the famous semifinal matchup with the powerhouse that was the Russian National team. It's nothing flashy, nothing we haven't seen in sports flicks before, but it is very good from beginning to end.
Kurt Russell is the Man. That is all. He hasn't worked a ton in film over the last 10-plus years, but this is one solid performance. He sinks his teeth into the part of Herb Brooks, the U.S. hockey team's head coach who goes about motivating his team under some unique circumstances. He isn't interested in being a friend to his players, even a casual acquaintance. Brooks is interested in one thing and one thing only; Winning. Russell's Brooks wants a team of hockey players, not a team of hockey stars and on-ice divas who make the game all about themselves. He pushes and pushes his players, knowing what it will take to pull off the impossible. The trick becomes, has he pushed them too far? I loved the performance from Russell (especially his late 70s/early 80s apparel. Those COATS!), the biggest and most important part that brings the real-life Brooks to life. Also look for Patricia Clarkson as Brooks' wife, struggling with the time commitment, and Noah Emmerich and Kenneth Welsh as his assistant coach and team doctor.
If I had an issue with the story, it is that with the focus on Brooks and the team, we don't get to know enough of the players, their history and their backgrounds. Yes, there's 20 players and there's no human way to introduce all of them, delve into all those back stories. Still, an effort for a little more depth would have been excellent. The biggest focus is on Eddie Cahill as Jim Craig, the U.S. team's goalie struggling with some personal and family issues. Also look for Patrick O'Brien Dempsey, Michael Mantenuto, Nathan West, Kenneth Mitchell, and Eric Peter-Kaiser as the more visible of the U.S. team members.
My counter to that previous statement is to shoot holes in said statement. Brook's intention as a coach was to bring a team together. Truly bring a team together, the players putting their egos aside for the sake of the team and for their country, the United States. In that sense, the focus of the film is on the team effort, not the individual effort. We don't necessarily need to know a whole lot about the players. As sappy or cheesy as it sounds, this is a movie patriotism and national pride, a story that if you didn't know it was true....you'd think this was some schmaltzy Hollywood script. So in the end, it is both good and bad. The effort is solid, a team's effort to win the Olympics, not the individual players, but I definitely would have liked a little more character development among the U.S. team members. Now that said.....U-S-A, U-S-A!!!
With sports movies sometimes, the biggest weakness is usually....well, the sports. The portrayal of said sport can be a tad rough and/or forced at times. I thought the hockey sequences were great here, whether it is the brutal training the U.S. team goes through (the painful 'Again...' scene following an Olympic warm-up, watch HERE) to the actual games, especially an early game against Sweden that comes down to the wire. The best sequence is of course, the epic showdown with Russia that gave the film its title, broadcaster Al Michaels infamously yelling 'Do you believe in miracles?!?' as the clock winds down. The game is one big drain on your adrenaline, so many up and down moments as the momentum switches back and forth. The actual gold medal game is an afterthought, the focus instead on the semifinals with the Russians. A very enjoyable sports movie, full of a handful of great, memorable moments and featuring an underrated performance from star Kurt Russell.
Miracle (2004): ***/****