Just like Remember the Titans and 2002’s The Rookie before it, Miracle takes facts sports fans know about and transforms them into riveting cinema. This time, it’s the story of the improbable run to victory by the 1980 United States hockey team in the Winter Olympics. Comprised of no-name college kids, the team dusted the juggernaut Soviet team on its way to a gold medal.
There was a similar tie-in of American morale to sports success done in Seabiscuit, but not this well. It forgoes that film’s lumbering narration from historian David McCullough for an opening-credits montage, several subdued flashes on the television and a handful of inspirational dialogue.
Further anchored by a flawless Kurt Russell performance as Herb Brooks, the team’s coach, the film adeptly rips away all cliches from even the most traditionally bungled sports-movie scenes. Brooks was a pragmatist who acknowledged the chance, not the odds, and in capturing that, Russell makes his motivational speeches uncommonly good.
Everything about Miracle feels authentic and classy, from its impeccably edited game re-creations to its very look. Russell’s hairstyle and loud plaid pants would be enough to properly date Miracle. But director Gavin O’Connor and cinematographer Dan Stolof give it that washed-out, game-film footage look akin to what you’d see on ESPN Classic.
It’s that sort of nice detail, along with crisp pacing and interesting subplots that gives Miracle a juicy immediacy — even if everyone knows how it ends. The success is in its details, the personal motivations and fears of the people involved.
Brooks was the last player cut from the 1960 Olympic hockey team that went on to win the gold medal. Russell plays this meaty story perfectly, alternating between fiery-tongued intensity and outstanding reserved moments, such as when he delivers one of his players the same bad news.
The screenplay hones in on interesting rivalries, family problems and quirks among them. The only false note is the perfunctory marital dysfunction between Brooks and wife Patti (Patricia Clarkson), briefly brought up before taking a backseat to the sports action.
It’s the same thoughtful approach screenwriter Mike Rich brought to Radio and The Rookie, although you won’t find his name anywhere here. That’s too bad, as producers have credited him with writing everything that made it into the movie. First-time screenwriter Eric Guggenheim first brought the idea to Disney and, because of convoluted writers’ guild arbitration rules, received sole credit.
When it comes to hockey movies, Slap Shot always will hold a top spot for its comedic, bad-boy emphasis on the sport’s violence. But Miracle easily takes its own place alongside it. Without overdoing things, it taps perfectly into that strive-for-excellence competitive spirit and the importance of team play in sports over individual talent.