Could it be that Disney, the studio that holds the trademark on triteness, has developed a true flair for non-patronizing, fact-based feel-good sports movies?
By all rights of Hollywood true-storydom, the Mouse House's 2002 film "The Rookie" -- based on the late-blooming career of Tampa Bay Devil Rays relief pitcher Jim Morris -- should have been stale, pedestrian junk. Yet director John Lee Hancock brilliantly balanced easy-going sentimentality and cinematic luster to produce one of the best baseball movies of all time.
Now comes "Miracle," a rousing and satisfying (if more perfunctory and less masterful) chronicle of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team -- a band of unknown young scrubs who captured America's imagination and pride by beating the unbeatable Russians (and later winning the gold medal) at the Lake Placid games.
Anchored by an unusually complex and affecting performance from Kurt Russell as undemonstrative (except in anger) and mercilessly demanding coach Herb Brooks, "Miracle" paints its heroes with the kind of authenticity and flawed humanity that make them seem three-dimensional even when most of them are largely interchangeable. None of the players stands out, but that strikes a chord with the theory that Brooks -- a former Olympic hockey player determined to recapture old glories -- develops for his team.
"I'm not looking for the best players," he retorts sharply when questioned by Olympic Committee wags about picking his entire squad on the first day of try-outs through foreknowledge and gut instinct. "I'm looking for the right ones."
Director Gavin O'Connor (making the big-league leap from indies like 1999's "Tumbleweeds") hitches the film's spirit to this maverick sentiment and uses it as a yardstick for the team's growth. The 1980 U.S. hockey team featured hungry, no-name players who were trained to exhaustion by Brooks and reconditioned into a unity with Soviet-style synergy. He knew the only way to end the 16-year dominance of the Russian hockey team was literally to beat them at their own game, and if the "dream teams" we now send to the Olympics had been available to Brooks, he wouldn't have been interested. Egos were not allowed.
Russell never shies away from the tunnel-vision nature of Brooks' iron-fisted resolve. But in his characterization there's a strong sense of the man's integrity (he's as hard on himself as he is on his players), his personal and professional flaws and foibles, and his tacit faith in the often cocky young recruits he slowly brow-beats into a focused, disciplined unit.
In this regard "Miracle" goes exactly where you'd expect, showing how Brooks' single-mindedness stirs resentment among the players and has token effects on his well-drawn marriage (the subtly sublime Patricia Clarkson plays his wife). But O'Connor digs more deeply than you'd expect for the truth of such moments, and does so without letting the emotions become inflated.
While the movie has notably accurate but mercifully ungarish period style, the director is somewhat less elegant in his endless incidental reminders of the socio-political atmosphere in which the story takes place. The title sequence is a collage of every high-profile news phenomenon of the decade leading up to the 1980 Winter Games -- Nixon, Ford and Reagan, Women's Lib and the lowering of the voting age, Cambodia and Vietnam, Watergate, the OPEC oil embargo, Three Mile Island and Love Canal, Afghanistan and the Iranian Hostage Crisis -- many of which are conspicuously revisited in passing within the context of the story as well.
Ironically, where O'Connor runs into the most trouble is in the kinetic, in-close footage of the hockey games themselves. The scenes provide a sense of hard-hitting aggression on the ice, but almost never cut away to the kind of long shots that would show all Brooks' strategy in action. "Miracle" also doesn't explain the process of the exhibition games leading up to the Olympics. How did it come to pass that this team landed in an ill-starred preview against the USSR (in which the anxiety of our heroes is overplayed) just three days before the Lake Placid opening ceremonies?
The goosebumps still come on strong, however, when Team USA takes to the ice for each game in the Olympic last act. You do feel how hard the goalie has to work against the powerful Ruskie players. And you do feel destiny in the air as Brooks (who unfortunately died in a car accident just one day before he was to see the finished film) calls his team in to listen to the crowd chanting "USA! USA!" as the home-ice underdogs rise to the occasion.
But beyond such easy and inevitable moments of exhilaration, it's the modest true-to-life minutia of "Miracle" that saves the movie from triviality. It's little details you might not notice, like the fact that Russell wears the same jacket and pants to his Olympic Committee job interview and to the first game in Lake Placid. It's the sideburns, biker mustaches, swept hair and the horrible plaid pants that somehow seem so natural as to be almost discreet. It's several well-written stern speeches, editing that keeps long periods without a score feeling exciting, and the director's choice to have Russell sketch out plays on the practice rink's safety glass (impractical, but cinematic).
And it's especially the life-long pent-up tension in Russell's face and the fact that O'Connor doesn't shy away from the tough part of Brooks' job -- cutting good players.
Such details don't make a movie great, but they do demonstrate the genuine commitment to making something special -- and that can make all the difference in the world.
Run time: 135 mins
In Theaters: Friday 6th February 2004
Box Office USA: $64.3M
Distributed by: Buena Vista Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 80%
Fresh: 126 Rotten: 32
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Director: Gavin O'Connor
Starring: Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks, Patricia Clarkson as Patty Brooks, Noah Emmerich as Craig Patrick, Sean McCann as Walter Bush, Kenneth Welsh as Doc Nagobads, Eddie Cahill as Jim Craig, Patrick O'Brien Demsey as Mike Eruzione, Michael Mantenuto as Jack O'Callahan
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